24 November 2007

Explaining Baseball in French

NaBloPoMo has taken it's toll. Thinking I had run out of ideas, I was about to resort to the 7 weird things about me meme. But, I don't really like memes. And I don't know how to define weird, much less understand how to apply it to my foibles and idiosyncrasies. I'm sure that there are some many who would have no problem reciting a litany of my oddities. Falling into this eager crowd: probably all of my direct reports, a few other coworkers, the moms at my son's grade school who couldn't comprehend that I didn't bake things, my son, his teen-aged friends, some of my siblings. But the sort of self-inspection needed to come up with seven weirdnesses of my own? I don't think I could do it. I don't want to know -- or care -- how far from the middle I fall. I may read too much by some standards; I tend to start stories at the end instead of the beginning; I don't follow sports at all; I know as much trivia as most Jeopardy! champs. Nerdy? Check. Geeky? You bet. But weird? Nay, it can't be.

So, while this post started out to be seven weird things about me, instead it became a post about how I once explained the rules of baseball in French. Here is my story, in seven parts:

1. Having given up on weird, I thought about unique. The only unique thing about my being I could think of was that I have a big freckle on the bottom of my left foot. When I was a child, being from a family with a couple of sets of twins, I would fantasize that if I had a twin, would she have a freckle on the bottom of her left foot or her right foot? When I was in college, if I wanted to get rid of some drunken frat boy at a party, I would coyly ask if he wanted to see my birthmark, alluding that I needed to remove clothing for it to be visible. And then I'd take off my shoe. That usually did the trick. I found it funny. My friends found it embarrassing. Good thing I never tried this with someone with a foot fetish. Apart from the beauty mark, the only other body oddity would be the scar across my eyebrow. "She'll be able to cover it up with makeup when she is older", I remember the doctor saying to my mother. It was the 60's. I assume he thought women would always have painted eyebrows. As I've aged, it has become almost unnoticeable, except when I have a very bad sunburn. I don't stay out in the sun, as I always burn. 80 SPF is my summertime choice for lotion.

2. When I was in my early teens, in addition to my freakish freckle and my pirate scar--which I was sure was highly visible along with every other flaw my adolescent body suddenly possessed -- I realized that my name was unique. My mother swore that I didn't have a middle name -- just two first names: the names of my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather. His name, as is; no feminized version. A boy's name! Today, even in France, this name is somewhat fashionable as a girl's name. Then, circa 1970, I detested having a male name attached to what I considered an old-fashioned grandma name. To make matters worse, neither name had common spellings. To my ears, when these two names were said together, with the harsh nasally Midwestern accent common where I grew up, it sounded like the name of a disease. Knowing that my family would never consent to something I adored, some totally cool exotic like Renee, Veronika, or Brijitte, or some flower-power name like Rain, Blossom, or Sunbeam ("She's a toaster", my brothers chortled), I resigned to using just the grandma-like name, always grimacing slightly when it was either misspelled or made into a common diminutive with an eee sound tacked to the end uninvited. My last name is unique too: unspellable in English, unpronounceable anywhere. There isn't anyone in the US with my surname who isn't a sibling or a first cousin. Though some may wish to claim that they aren't related to me.

3. About a dozen years ago, my cousin and I received an email from a woman named M that began: "I found you on the internet. We have the same last name. Maybe we are related? I hope you speak French". The rest of the three page email was in French.

4. I had studied French for eight years in school, but I had not spoken nor read French in 15 years. Reading existential novelists and writing research papers on absinthe-besotted French painters hadn't prepared me for reading a family history narrative. I struggled to translate the email. I understood about 60-70%.

5. I asked a friend to help translate. I replied to M's email, looking up nearly every other word in the dictionary. For fun, I started reading French newspapers and magazines on the web. Understanding the language came back quickly. I was pleased. Give me a few days in Paris and I would be fluent. My cousin was more interested in genealogy than I was, and she corresponded with M and other probable distant cousins in France. She even flew to Quebec once to meet one of them. I lost interest and contact for a few years.

6. A few years later, my husband took me to Paris for my 40th birthday. Before the trip, my cousin, after reminding me that all she got for her 4oth was pizza at the mall with the kids, suggested that I contact M. I emailed M to suggest that we meet. She responded by recommending that she and her partner J-M take us for a tour of the city, "in their little car". Since these were the only words in English she used, I assumed that it was one of the few phrases she had learned in her English lessons. When we met them, indeed, it was a little car and the four of us barely fit. Although we were familiar with Paris, we had a lovely afternoon seeing the city through the eyes of enthusiastic locals. The hardest part was trying not to look concerned when J-M tried to look up words in English in his 8-lb Francais/Anglais dictionary -- while he was driving around the l'Arc de Triomphe.

7. More difficult, though, was having dinner at their home a few nights later. What would we talk about? How would we talk? Would the evening be spent looking up every third word before it could be spoken? M claimed not to know any spoken English, but she understood everything we said. She patiently listened as I struggled to translate my loquacious husband's comments. J-M informed us that he was improving his English -- one of 5 languages he spoke -- by watching Canadian television programming. Understanding each other became easier as the night went on. "An open bottle is an empty bottle", J-M said. It must have helped with the translations and overlooking bad grammar in both languages. Around 2 in the morning, as we quaffed the 4th bottle, J-M said: "There is this game I see on the satellite. Zee Canadiennes play it too, but it is Americain. I think it has no rules at all. It is called 'baze-ball".

And, that is how I came to explain baseball in French. Even the bits about keeping stats. After four bottles of wine. With drawings on paper cocktail napkins. The NFL may be doing exhibition games in Europe this season, but I am sure that any advances by MLB to demo for the French the all-American way to pass a perfect summer afternoon have been stymied by what I did on that Spring night several years ago.


chiefbiscuit said...

Ahhh oui!!! 'Ow I love zat story. Thank you Cam - merci beaucoup. Marvellous!!!

Charlotte said...

A meme with a theme! Yours is beaucoup more charmante than mine - I did seven things about sickness.

I well know those evenings spent in the company of people of another language and how every opened bottle aids better communication! Now with German, we don't need alcohol in order to talk, but we certainly did in the beginning.

Cam said...

Charlotte - I should write about my one Germany story sometime. No alcohol involved, but lots of rules, as one would expect. I'm not sure they'll let me back in the country....

Glad you enjoyed my story, CB.

mandarine said...

That was level 1.

Level 2 is explaining cricket.

PS: my son's first name is Camille.

Cam said...

Mandarine, There can be no level 2 as there is no explaining cricket. I am doubtful that even a Brit could do so. In cricket, unlike baseball, truly there are no rules. How could there be in a game that lasts days.

I think your son has a great name!