Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages
Jean Nicaise

Translator's note: Square brackets [ ] enclose clarifications or explanations.  [Sic] means the previous word appears as per the original. Italics show when Nicaise himself uses English.

Spoken English: The real thing [Nicaise's French title for this section, "L'anglais tel qu'on le parle," is the name of a popular, much-revived vaudeville play by French playwright Tristan Bernard]

          I was on the best of terms with one of my neighbors, a friendly retiree and former mechanic named Hubert Quillen. He was a straightforward fellow who peppered his speech with grammatical errors that even a foreigner could easily detect. When we first met, he asked me what church I went to; I think that he, like Mary, didn't go to one himself. Shaking my hand, he said to me:
          - Call me Hubert, Mr. Nicaise. By the way, what's your first name?
          - John!
          The French name "Jean" is unpronounceable for the average American. Moreover in America it's a female first name with the same pronunciation as the one universally given to the cowboy pants so many men and women wear today.
          - Well, John, there're two things you must know. Never say "a Yankee," say "a damn Yankee."  [In a footnote Nicaise writes that contrary to the European practice of lumping all Americans into the single word Yankee, Americans use it only for Northerners, and Southerners give it a pejorative connotation.] And never say "a Negro," say "a big fat nigger." [Having given these sentences in English, Nicaise then translates them into French.]
          He added:
          "Those damn Yankees don't speak the same language as we do! Anyway, how do you expect to get along with people that put sugar on their cantaloupe?"
          I've never tried eating this juicy fruit with salt, the way they do in the South.
          Hubert helped me find and buy a used car, a 1955 Plymouth, for four hundred dollars, which was 20% less than what I'd sold my Opel for.
          [Here an uncaptioned photo shows Nicaise behind the wheel of his 1955 Plymouth.]
          In the light of Hubert's linguistic advice, I wasn't surprised at the problems I encountered understanding the people I spoke with. A French-speaking Belgian visiting France will find that the French don't speak the language the same way as at home: the French have lunch when a Belgian has dinner; they have dinner when we have supper. Our chicory is their endive, our pots are their casseroles, our casseroles then become their deep-dish. At the [French] butcher shop, a Belgian faces all kinds of unknown cuts. At the grocer's, if I have the misfortune to order a score of grams of something, they look at you funny until you correct yourself and say twenty.
          As for the American language, the humorist Frank Loxley Griffin has written a pamphlet called Learn English Before You Go that gives advice to Americans planning to go to England. Admittedly, Griffin and Hubert exaggerate, and everyone speaks more or less the same language everywhere but with accents as different as someone from Toulouse [the south of France] compared with someone from Dunkerque [extreme northern France]. Here the natives always seem to have an accent that drags like the blades of their ceiling fans. They use expressions that are purely Southern and litter their speech with idiomatic expressions, or slang, that aren't taught in schools or in language methods like Assimil. The youth, like youth everywhere, have their own jargon and speak more "slang" than the adults.
          Most of you have learned that in right, bright, night (sometimes written nite in the US), the "i" is pronounced "aïe." Not in Tennessee! What you hear is closer to râte, brât, and nât. To render the sound of the personal pronoun "I," Margaret Mitchell writes it as "Ah" in Gone with the Wind.
          At the beginning of September, Mary left for Belgium. She had introduced Renee to her acquaintances, most importantly to her old friend and our neighbor Rose Quillen, a former schoolteacher who now worked at the post office. She was to be our mentor -- our nanny -- throughout our stay. Mary had also made Renee familiar with the city and its shops, especially the supermarket, a novelty for a Belgian in 1958. She'd taken her around the surrounding area and up into Virginia. Gate City is the nearby town where she went to buy her whisky.
          The French spoken by this teacher of French was really quite elementary. I needn't have been embarrassed at my English, which after all was not the language that I taught. We only conversed in English. I did fine and was at ease everywhere. But Renee had only studied the Assimil method for three months, and without the records, which were too expensive! Of course those were three months during which she applied herself with her usual perseverance. But I would always regret that the short learning period, together with her timidity and lack of confidence in her ability, did not seem to me to prepare her to be thrown into a foreign language, especially when there was somebody right there who taught French. Indeed, even when the ladies were by themselves, they spoke English to one another! It was all for the best, as it turned out, because it gave my wife the assurance she needed to get through the overwhelming change in her very tranquil life provoked by her adventurous husband.
          Very sorry to see Mary go -- because she was delightful and we had gotten attached to her -- we then found ourselves alone in the house. We had rented it from her at an attractive price, but it lacked the comfort that we expected to find in the United States, and even that of our home in Chatelet. We didn't bother to look for an apartment that might have been more comfortable but more expensive. With just one salary, particularly the modest one in Tennessee compared to that of other states, we wanted to save as much as possible so as to be able to visit other parts of the United States.
          As it was, we made do with the bare minimum: two bedrooms, one bathroom, a big kitchen. The living room was poorly furnished: a worn-out couch and the indispensable rocking chair. There was no television even though in 1958 most homes had them. The radio was shabby.
          There was also a study where Mary had so much stuff that it was unusable. I can't recall if that's where her library was. Anyway, I never borrowed a single book.
          The old steam boiler for the natural gas central heating system didn't like us very much. When the thermostat, set at night to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, decided it was time to get going, the too-abruptly-expanded cast-iron radiators protested with such a loud clanging that it woke us up.

[Translated from the French by Jud Barry]


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