Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lost in Translation

I was talking to this guy from Morocco, and I asked him when he had come to France. He says. "On half of March." This seems easy to understand, but when conversing, its not easy to realise that half of March means 15th of March.


At lunch time, I'm surrounded by French speakers. They all can speak English, but speaking in French comes more naturally to them. And in a raging discussion, halting English does not have the same effect. I'm let in on the topic from time to time. Someone realises that I don't understand French yet and am offered a translation and an opportunity to contribute. But when the details and the flow of thought is not clearly understood, the whole thing appears confusing. And sometimes also very funny. Getting only small glimpses of the entire conversation makes you wonder how the thoughts were connected. Unfortunately, I can only share what I was translated for my benefit.

The first topic I heard was about a love story that everyone in France is expected to read in school. To which I commented having read works of some French authors. This turned to a discussion of French writers and philosophers. And how many people have no idea about Indian writers. I was told about this author who wrote an essay on how people should deal with each other and something about Corsica (I am guessing it was Rousseau, thanks to help from Wikipedia.)

The conversation returns to French and I am left to my own thoughts. After some time, I am told the they are discussing about how the tax on fuel might increase. In order to regulate the greenhouse effect. They ask me about fuel prices in India. I respond and slowly the conversation moves back to French. I'm left to my thoughts again. Then I realise that they are talking about colors. And their gesturing and pointing suggests that they are talking about hair.

My inquisitive look elicits a response: One of them says that he is explaining how his hair is not exactly black, but is a different shade. They remark about me having some gray hair. I smile, saying I know about it.

I wonder how all these thoughts were connected.


For my birthday, on 5th Sept, we went to Cannes to watch Inglourious Basterds. In France, only some places show the movie in its original form ("Version Originale") with French subtitles. They rest show the movies dubbed in French. We did not know that the movie features dialogue in English, French and German (and Italian too!) So when we did go see the movie, we thought that the first scene in French was just Tarantino's brilliant ploy to keep the audience confused before he reveals his ideas. Once the dialogue shifted to English, the subtitles in French began. We realised things were wrong only when the dialogue shifted to German.

The subtitles were still in French!

Its an interesting experience to figure out a movie in an unknown language with no subtitles. Only bits of the dialogue is in English, and you have to rely on your meagre translating skills to figure what certain French words might mean. I still enjoyed the movie, because Tarantino still manages to make viewing it interesting. But I so wish I had seen the "good" version.

I managed to see a decent copy later, with English subtitles, and the movie is amazing. I noticed one thing about Tarantino's movies. They are more than 2 hours long, and have very little things happening in them. And yet, what the characters say and do while those few things happen is what makes up the movie. Its needs great skill to still keep us enthralled and he has mastered that art.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Culture Shock - France

I initially began to think that with all the warnings and stuff, I would be immune to culture shock. In a sense, its true. I was told stuff by the French, I read (/am reading) a book called "Culture Shock - France" - written specifically for helping adjust to this new country. So, there are many things that did not surprise me as much as they should have. But I just darn well can't help wanting to note them down.

The previous time I wrote a Culture shock post, I think I was a bit too early in writing it. I had landed in India after a year, and saw things differently. But in the first 5 days, I did not notice many things. Rather I didn't experience them. So this time, I waited. And it has been good to wait, because there is more to write. The initial feeling of not having any "shock" to write about has gone. So here goes nothing:

1: Food: one word - awesome. That is if you are a meat eater. For me, non-beef products are okay. So, I think I have gained a few pounds in the last two weeks. USA, take note: Even non-fried meat can be made to taste good. And an excellent meal is comprised of a salad, a meat product, fruits, dessert, cheese and wine. Heaven... with a few additional pounds of course.

2: Roads are narrow. In general, they are two lanes or maybe 4. The lanes are narrower. The buildings are much much closer to the road. And parallel parking is a necessary art you HAVE to master. Forget straight roads and be prepared for round-abouts, curving roads and probably pedestrians on the street.

3: Cars are almost always small. The narrow streets and smaller space necessitate it. Its nice to see small cars that you see in India - the Swift, Punto, Zen (?), an Indica variant. Its a little odd to see a big ass truck or mini-van. Almost all cars are manual transmission (hooray!). My hands are itching to drive cars here. Good roads and manual transmission is great combination.

4: Language: Its a scary realisation that the languages you are most comfortable with don't work. Sign language, phrase books and blank looks are a way of communicating. Its an interesting contrast to India, where everyone is trying to switch to English. France decides to preserve its language, and make people who want to stay here adapt. Of course, its made sure its in a position to force this.

5: Metric system!!!! Say hello to kilograms, kilometers and litres! Things make sense again. You don't have to worry about how many ounces make a quart or a gallon. Or how many ounces (again!) make a pound. But its time to remember what you learnt in school - mili-litre, centi-litre, litre. :)

6: Fuel: It seems only the US and the Arab countries have access to cheap fuel. And for some reason, India is getting it cheap too. In France, diesel costs 1 Euro per litre! Almost twice as much as in India. And petrol is even more expensive. I'm confused about this. India apparently gets fuel cheap, but taxes it a lot. US gets the fuel cheap and capitalism drives the cost down. Whats the deal in France? And Europe in general?

7: People say US is multicultural. Maybe it is. But its much easier to find your own community there and settle into it. And then not worry about interacting with others. France has been an awesome place to meet new people. In this small area where I am, I've already met people from about 7 different countries, excluding France. On a recent trip, all 5 of us were from different countries, each with different mother tongue. Its interesting that broken English is the only way of communication.

8: Motorcycles! They are a viable mode of transport. Thanks to the short distances. And you can rent them too. I am currently in a dilemma. Buy a motorcycle? or a car. * sigh *

Maybe I sound harsh on US in this. Its because right now, the concept of foreign land to me included only US. And this new addition is quite different. I've accepted the fact that I should not compare this place to India.