Wednesday, November 26, 2008

All for one and free for all

Amynah is now back in Strasbourg, and has spent the last two days attempting to come up with a remark suitably cutting enough to encourage me to shave my nascent beard.* So far, she’s taken to calling me D’Artagnan, as in the Three Musketeers. That’s backfired, as I rather like looking like the kind of guy who could whip out his epée at the slightest provocation.

Anyway, shortly after her arrival, as we chatted in the cab on the way back from Strasbourg’s airport, I realized that I had spoken barely any English while she was gone. I had, of course, been over at Danielle and David’s place, but that barely counts as he’s British, and thus still clinging to some near-incomprehensible island dialect with only a distant relationship to English as it is spoken in the civilized world.

Otherwise, most of my socializing was conducted entirely in the language of Molière, as long as you believe Molière was a stammering bumpkin with a vocabulary of 400 words and no grasp of the future-conditional. I was quite proud of myself, frankly. It became natural enough to me that, by the end of the week, it was my default language in which to start a conversation - even when speaking to English speakers whose French was no better than mine.

Though, to be fair, much of my “French” conversation was conducted with people who were trying to improve their English, and thus spoke to me in English even while repressing their wincing as I mangled their language. My fragile comprehension skills were therefore subject to almost no duress at all.

Attempting to explain the ins-and-outs of English to none-native speakers really does make one realize how ridiculous some of our language actually is. My friend Félicie, for instance, cannot wrap her head around the expression “I feel like” meaning “I would like.” As she points out, “I feel like chocolate” would seem to imply that you’re made of chocolate. Her regular English teacher told her that “I fancy chocolate” would be a way to get around this, but personally I feel that’s so insufferably British it would be better if she just grabbed the chocolate without asking. People would understand.

Of course, my North American language biases do have their drawbacks. Earlier in the week I was having coffee with my friend Mirna, during which I complimented her on her collier - at which point she asked me for the English word.

“Necklace” I said, with perfect Canadian diction.

“Like…. N-E-C-K-L-E-S-S ?” she asked.

I explained that no, as funny an image as it may be, this was not the case, and vowed to improve my pronunciation. However, given that Mirna’s thinking of doing a postdoc in Canada, perhaps I should teach her the proper way to end a sentence with the word “eh?” and that “where’re y’at?” is a perfectly acceptable formulation. Working on another language has improved my English in other ways as well – French is a very precise language** which, I hope, has spilled over to my spoken English. As well, I remain forever grateful to Félicie for giving me the phrase “Big hugs on Amynah” which I think is a wonderful turn of phrase. Though I may be biased due to its subject.

* Photos of said beard will be posted when it graduates from “nascent” to “not laughable.”

** I say this despite that they have the same word for “spire” and “arrow,” i.e. flèche, which I’m pretty sure translates as “pointy thing.”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What? Still no point?

This video has nothing at all to do with this post, which in turn has nothing terribly worth reading in it. However, the song is pretty good, and will hopefully make up for any entertainment shortfalls in the text that follows

So, I’m now on day seven of occupying myself on my own here. Here’s the report.

As is customary when I go camping, I have ceased shaving. Amynah, despite her many other wonderful qualities, does not like beards, or at least not on me. So, in her absence, I am attempting to grow a chin curtain, with which to surprise/appall her on her return.

The problem I always have, when attempting this, is that none of the major facial-hair growing zones actually connect with one another. I am thus left with sideburns dangling uselessly off my cheeks, fruitlessly attempting to reach a goatee that, in turn, falls just short as it strains to reach my moustache.

Rather than have my face be decorated with a fuzzy archipelago, I eliminated the cheek-fuzz, leaving me with a ‘stache and goatee combination. Last time I attempted this, Amynah described the result as making me look like “an angry Backstreet Boy,” thus goading me into putting and end to the experiment. This time, having much more gray in my hair, I expect that I look like a Dirty Old Backstreet Man.

Other observations from the week:

1) I’ve discovered the owners of this apartment own the first season of Law and Order. The intervening years have not been kind to that series – the episodes I saw would not be out of place on the Comedy Channel today.

2) Attempting to learn any Arabic words, when you are an English speaker labouring your way through a French conversation, will cause your tongue to explode.

3) Vicky Christina Barcelona was, despite a trailer that made it look it would be like Woody Allen at his dirty-old-man-artist-scores-the-babes worst, was not bad. Penelope Cruz was worth the price of admission alone.

4) No one I've encountered this week, except those I explicitly told, has commented on my increasingly hirsute appearance. This means that I have the facial hair of a pre-pubescent, or folks just think I'm forsaken basic hygeine.

Tip readers in Halifax: my friend Tim is going to be in a musical based on the Nativity story, featuring songs from Queen, David Bowie, Tom Petty and more! It will be Friday, Saturday and Sunday (this weekend) at Saint Matthew’s Church on Barrington. I promote it not as an endorsement of Tim’s talent, but because it’s for a good cause, and I find the idea amusing (and I’m trying to guess what songs go with what parts of the story: The Talking Heads Psycho Killer for the Slaughter of the Innocents? The Police’s Every Breath You Take (I'll be watching you) for the Visitation? Tom’s Petty’s Refugee for the Flight to Egypt? The mind boggles).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

If you think you see a point to this, you are mistaken

Hey folks. Sorry I’ve been incommunicado, but I have been somewhat overwhelmed the last couple of weeks. Fortunately, the wave has now crested, and I am now back to my normal state of idle lethargy (or at least focus on those projects that are not as deadline-driven).

In any case, I'm going to take this blog in a brave new direction: rather than hiking misadventures and odd-ball history, I'm bringing you, my lucky readers, something never before seen on the Internet: a little something I'm going to call "Inane, self-absorbed ramblings."

Just in case anyone was wondering exactly how I earn my keep around here, over the last couple of weeks, I have written, among other things, articles on Canada’s culpability in one the worst ethnic massacres of the 20th century, particle physics, two entirely different human genetics discoveries, and a pan-European linguistics archive. Woven throughout, I compiled 65 speaker’s biographies for an upcoming conference in Stockholm. Yeah, I’m a hero.

Sadly, because I’ve been so busy, Amynah and I have not had much time to hang out. And now that my schedule’s normalized, she’s gone: for the next ten days, she’s at a conference and visiting friends in the United States of Obama.

Now, I have spent time apart from Amynah before, but it’s a little different this time. First of all, this apartment is too big for two people. For one person, it’s positively agoraphobia-inducing.

Second, while I have plenty of reading to catch up on, I will not be able to watch TV I’ve “found” on the Internet, or go to the movies: we have so little options for either, I want to be able to savour them with her. Nor am I a big one for watching re-runs: while I’ve come to love watching TV on DVD, I have yet to re-watch TV programmes I’ve already seen.*

I can and will go out with friends here, but because almost everyone I’ve met here I’ve met as the less articulate half of a “Married Couple” (with all the perceived stodginess implied therein) socializing not as natural for me as it was in Canada; no one here just “pops over” for pizza and a game of pool.**

Speaking of movies, here’s a question for the peanut gallery: do any of you go to movie theatres on your own? I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie on the big screen by myself. I realize there’s no reason not to, but for some reason, I consider sitting silently in the dark eyes fixed on a screen to be an experience best shared. Anybody who can help me break through this irrational block will be treated to… I don’t know, a paean to your wonderfulness here on Strasmark.

* The notable exception being Flight of the Conchords, which Amynah and I will occasionally re-watch, but only the song portions.

** Do people play pool anymore, or was that strictly a ‘90s Halifax fad?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance Day

This is the major War Memorial in Strasbourg. It stands on Place Republique, in front of a Palace built during the occupation to assert the Kaiser's authority over his conquered territories.

Because Alsace was annexed to the Prussian Empire after 1870, men here were required to fight for Germany when the Great War broke out in 1914. Some refused, or fled across the border to fight for France, while others - friends and family - fought under the Kaiser. This statue, erected as new hostilities loomed in the 1930s, captures the particular dynamic of war in Alsace. It shows an Alsatian mother, mourning her two sons, one of whom faces west into France, the other Germany, shorn of the uniforms that marked them as enemies, united in death.

I've always distrusted Remembrance Day, for reasons I won't get into here, not least because I have a truly frightening amount of work to get done today. Nonetheless, I can't help but be moved by this memorial, if only because it reminds us there is no justness in war.