September 5, 2007


Last week, I had the strange, somber and culturally instructive experience of attending a traditional Catholic funeral in France. The funeral was for Xavier’s uncle, only 68, who was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and who, within a month’s time, went downhill, could no longer eat and whose body succumbed to the illness and died. Since Xavier and I only arrived in France in June, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to meet all of his extended family. The funeral was thus a series of introductions at something of a sad and inopportune moment. His aunts and uncles greeted me with tears in their eyes, each of them kissing me ceremoniously on both cheeks. The French never miss this ritual. Xavier’s father is from a family with 7 children and thus, the bisous were plentiful.

Xavier’s father, Vincent, is an enchanting man. His smile is luminous – mostly stemming from his eyes. He is vibrant and charismatic, and he always holds himself in a dignified way – one hand to a cuff of his opposite sleeve, perfect posture and yet at the same time, not at all stuffy. He is warm with me – generous – he confers his generosity by listening carefully to my slow sentences as they make their way out of my mouth and he puts the pieces of my word salad together. A gift from a French man. He takes the time to explain things as they happen and he encourages me each time he sees me in my little plight here, saying “Language takes time, but what progress you’ve made!”

At this moment, however, Vincent is unrecognizable. He is engulfed by grief. His eyes don’t shine; they look very tired, almost dull, and his posture betrays his usual poise. We enter the church – a mass of people. Vincent stands to read the words of his sister, Christine, who could not be at the funeral. He gets up. He stands in front of the 200 people in the gothic church, in front of the wooden casket laid out in the center aisle. He is unable to read the words. He hands the paper to the priest, who, in his somewhat benign and condescending manner recites the words on the page. Vincent repositions himself in his seat in one of the front pews.

The silences are filled by the priest. He sings and the congregation joins him. Although most people in France are Catholic by birth, few attend church more than for occasions like this one. And yet, despite rampant secularism, when the hymns are sung, people know the words. Xavier’s mother knows the words by heart. Xavier sings the words and recognizes the melodies. The priest asks the family to stand. Xavier, his sister and mother stand with the rest. They file out slowly into the center aisle and approach the casket one by one, shaking a gold baton filled with oil over the wood. The oil glistens on its side. Every person in the church, individually, performs the same ritual. The church is heavy – the air feels like it.

We file out silently and go to the cemetery. Cemeteries in France are peculiar to me. Like most things cultural, I don’t even notice the particular way an American cemetery is set up until I see how vastly different it can be. The rows of graves aren’t headstones – they either lay completely flat on the ground or, more commonly, they are small houses – sanctuaries, I guess. The houses are made of stone – they line the “streets” of the cemeteries with front doors and small stain glass windows. Candles usually burn within. In the big cemeteries of Paris (le Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise or le Cimetiere de Montparnasse) there are literally maps – exactly like a street map, with street names and grave houses marked on the plan.

The casket is wrapped in white plastic and is essentially dumped in the grave with a crane - an odd juxtaposition between something antediluvian and something strictly modern. I feel unease with this; I look around and it is clear my sentiment is shared. Yet, the casket in the ground lightens the mood somehow and people start opening and up and talking more freely. They turn to me.

Pause: I must take a minute to explain my language situation at the moment. I feel like I am in a fog. I am sure plenty of people in a similar circumstance have described it in exactly those terms. Fuzzy. Hazy. Vague. Imprecise. Even when I understand all the words in a sentence, if I miss the tense of just one verb, the whole thing is transformed and I am disoriented and adrift with my own little account of what I think is being said. Often, I feel the impulse to reply to something only to find that the conversation has moved on entirely. I am too late. Seventy-five percent is clear and the remaining twenty-five percent is left to my imagination: idiomatic expressions, colloquial terms, jokes based on semantics, and sometimes “verlan.”

Verlan is a popular way of speaking in French – something light, even fun, stemming from youth in the banlieues (the neighborhoods bordering Paris, usually impoverished). Speaking “verlan” means inverting the syllables of French words. For example, “chez moi” (at my house) becomes “chez oim”; “bizarre” becomes “zarbi”; “vas-y” (go there) becomes “zyva”; “fete” (party) becomes “teuf.” For a girl just trying to make it with her standard French vocab, trying to anticipate what is essentially pig-latin in French becomes a bit tricky. (As a side note: the fact that verlan has crept into common usage in France is miracle. There is a whole national assembly of language preservation police who determine what words can be officially “French” or not. And the French are racist toward the Arabs who inhabit les banlieues, so it is truly wacky they allow these youths to invert and twist their beloved language. And then they actually feel comfortable using the morphed words).

They turn to me. They ask me how I find Paris. “I find Paris wet,” I respond. (Paris has had 46% more rainfall this summer than average). “Yes, yes,” they agree, but they continue by providing the many reasons Paris is a star. (And she is a star – even I would agree).

One more language note: the French and their pronouns. Because everything is gendered – either masculine or feminine, part of my confusion in French stems from people always throwing around the pronouns “he” and “she.” While speaking of Paris, a French person might say – “she is lovely, she is luminous, she is vibrant.” Then I, having missed the initial antecedent (Paris), think to myself, “I would love to meet this person – she sounds captivating,” only to find it is the city being discussed. This problem is ubiquitous for me; Xavier, speaking of chair we just bought, says, “she is round, red and heavy.” I ask aloud, “Who are you talking about?” I find myself in a little world full of characters described in the strangest ways. I have to get used to the fact that a candle is a “she” and my “cell phone” is a he (…don’t forget to bring him).

So, yes, Paris is wet. And then the characters of la famille Joly show up. Vincent’s youngest sister, Gaby appears. She looks exactly like one of those stacking Russian dolls (the set of dolls placed one inside each other, increasing in size). Her eyes are like Vincent’s – warm and encompassing. She gets you in her gaze. Xavier introduces me, because we have not yet met, and she looks at me intently and says with big, wide eyes and perfect sincerity, “You’re lucky I’m not a man, Xavier, I’d have such a crush on this one.” She pronounces this with an open face, humor, but completely seriously. If she were a man, it would have felt creepy. As it were, I just felt flattered.

Next, it’s Remi. Remi is Xavier’s hippy uncle, who lives in the South of France and who came to the funeral despite being firmly against such events (death, I guess). Remi looks at me and says, “Are you sure she’s American? I always picture Americans having the heads of hamburgers.” (Les tetes d’hamburger, quoi).

Heads of hamburgers. Right. I laughed for a full 5 minutes after that one. And then he thought I did, indeed, have the head of a hamburger.

My mother always had a problem with her children. We were far too critical. Like Xavier, we would describe people in unnecessarily mean ways. She always tried to re-appropriate the given insult by sprinkling a compliment on top of it. Classic example…Us: “She is so stupid and fat.” Rosie: “She has lovely, shiny hair.” I’ve always sort of relished my critical view, my attitude of slight superiority. My siblings and I used to sit in church and have a roaring time comparing people to animals, finding blunders in the way they spoke, essentially general criticism for all (my dad would even participate occasionally). However, I have entered a country where everyone I meet plays this same game. And they are generally better at it than I. They play it with their eyes in the metro, with their words as you walk down the street, with their body as they speak to you (with permanently pursed lips) and gesticulate. It is not as enjoyable as I thought it might be (my mom would be pleased with the lesson I am learning). Xavier, first and foremost, peppers my existence with his running critical commentary:

- “You look like an egg in that dress.”
- In reference to my hygiene: “I believe the balance you’ve found is interesting.”
- And in reference to my progress in French (said with enthusiasm): “And it’s not like you sound retarded anymore!”

And while I actually smile and laugh at his commentary of me, because he really does offer it jokingly, it would be funnier if he extended his observations to himself. But, alas, no – the French are not extremely self-reflexive people. He is, by contrast, self-congratulatory.

- Most recently: “I’m so much faster than everyone else.” (Said with total sincerity and as if it were really germane)

Xavier read that last part and claims it is a bit mean…perhaps true; however, I’ve not edited it out because it is true and funny and I write it with a smile.
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