Tuesday, September 30, 2014

365 Cheeses

“A country that produces 365 cheeses cannot lose the war!”

So said General DeGaulle.  Also:

“How can you govern a country where there are 258 varieties of cheese?”

These two quotations came to my mind a couple of months ago while on the road interpreting for a group of over thirty French visitors to the Midwest.  The exact number of cheese varieties in France, as well as in the quotation, was as jumbled in my memory as it was in DeGaulle’s, so I had to look it up.  I tried to find an exact figure of how many different types of cheese are produced in France, and those numbers were all in conflict with each other.  I think the reason for the ambiguity is that the French don’t want to discount the small producer out in the Aveyron with a hundred head of cattle on a hill and a really great homemade cheese sold in the local farmer’s market.

The huge variety of cheeses is the perfect expression of how French cling to their individuality, to their unique personal expression.  How horrible of me to make sweeping generalities about a culture!  This is the place where prejudice is born!  And yet, the more time a person spends straddling two cultures, the more those cultural definitions become enforced through observation.  I know for a solid fact that some jokes will make an American laugh, and will not even provoke a smile from a French listener.  Conversely, something a Frenchman finds screamingly funny can totally escape the American sense of humor.  Certain actions and reactions can be expected, dependent upon culture.

My group of French visitors to the U.S. approached me on the tour bus with a request.  Would I please speak to the driver in order to reserve her services and her vehicle for the evening? 

It would be simple enough to just go interpret the question to the bus driver, but my antennae went up, sensing a pending complication.  Interpretation always has the interpreter thinking ahead.

“Before I ask the driver, can you find out three things for me?  How many passengers will there be?  What is your destination?  And at what time do you want to leave?”

The groups’ transportation delegates left me, with a promise to come back in a few minutes with the answers.

I sat in the back of the bus and watched the conversation unfold in the aisle, starting with a simple question and escalating to a full blown debate, punctuated with both laughter and moments of forcefulness.

An hour later, their spokesperson came to me with the following itinerary:  “Six of us would like to go to the art museum.  Five want to go to the jazz club.  Three from the museum group want to join the others at the jazz club, and two from the jazz club don’t want to leave the hotel until later, but then the art museum would already be closed.”

I borrowed the piece of paper on which the person had scribbled the math and made my way down the aisle of the bus to the driver’s position, knowing full well what her response would be:  “Taxis.”

How did I foresee that there would not be an easy consensus?  Would an all-American group have come up with one destination and one departure time?  Perhaps not, but I dare to make the generalization that Americans are more “team players” than the French.

I often hear from French visitors that they are astounded by the number of American flags, flying from every building, from schools to gas stations.  You don’t see as many tricolor French flags in France.  In some way, the French don’t need a symbol to know they are French.  Their culture is so thick with traditions, with “dos and don’ts” that are subtle indicators in a person’s mannerisms and speech that immediately communicate to each other that “I am French.”  I can’t describe it, but when I go to the airport to meet a group of clients, I can spot a group of Frenchmen at a hundred yards in the crowd.  For that matter, it’s just as easy to pick out American tourists at Roissy.  Nobody is carrying a flag.  The American one is a confusing patchwork of stars and stripes, and serves as a symbol to unite the cultural mix that is an American.  The French flag takes the same three colors, bleu blanc rouge , but displays them in an understated couturier-acceptable array of equally measured vertical bands.  I think to the French mind, other than on July 14th on the Champs Elysées, those colors merely indicate the location of a government office and the French have a love-hate relationship with government.  They rely heavily upon it and are always extremely unhappy with it.

Working in the French language and culture is personally exhilarating for me, like joining an exclusive club with an elaborate secret handshake.  The French with whom I work are usually very warm hearted towards me, with my mixed American background but my obvious efforts to be one of them.  I think professional linguists have somewhat of a split personality, with a foot in two cultures.  We get to be someone else, role playing and toggling between idioms and the manners that go with them.

Today is the Feast of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators.  He was a Roman who traveled to Gaul and spent some time in the Middle Eastern desert with hermits.  He made the cultural transitions required to translate the Bible into Latin, an amazing piece of work. 

I wonder if he was easily recognizable as a foreigner when he was hanging out in Syria?  Or was he successfully able to blend in with the locals?

The real test would have been when he went to arrange for his “bus ride” back to Rome….