11 May 2011

French Lesson Vis-a-Vis Horrible Neighbors

Some readers of this blog probably think I'm being paid by the Swiss Tourism Bureau to write positive reports from here in Chocolateland. If only! I get paid nothin' by nobody to write these blogs, which is only slightly less than I've so far been paid by Swiss publications. I'm still trying to figure out why salaries here for regular jobs are about double what they are in the U.S., while freelance magazine writing pays about half what I get for U.S. publications -- plus they expect you to throw in your photos for free.

But that's not what I meant to write about today. I want to write (again) about the mysterious nuances of the formal and informal "you" in the French language. I'm still struggling along with learning French. My Swiss and French friends tell me I've progressed a lot in the last year -- at least I think that's what they're saying, but I'm not sure because my comprehension is still on the level of a dog listening pitifully to his master. The upside is that I've become more proficient at reading body language. If someone smiles or laughs or brightens their eyes while speaking, I become jovial. If they furrow their brow, I try to show commensurate concern.

But that's not what I meant to write about either, so why don't I get to the point.

French teachers explain that when we first meet someone, we always use the formal "vous" form for "you" and continue with that until the two parties have achieved some mysterious level of intimacy that is usually signaled by the native French speaker -- and which we foreigners will probably miss. But once we get it we feel blessed and begin to use the more intimate "tu" form of "you" with that person.

What our teachers never tell us is that sometimes "tu" must be abandoned and we must return to the more distant "vous." Sadly, my wife and I have experienced this ourselves.

When Maïf and I first moved in here to our country cottage in the gorgeous sprawling farmlands above Neuchâtel, with the lake below and the Alps beyond, we were in bliss, especially after meeting our neighbors on either side. With the couple on one side, we quickly became friendly, and in no time "tu" and "toi" filled the air. Today we are evermore affectionate friends.

The neighbors on the other side ... not so much. The day we arrived there was a gift of fruit from them on our front step. Sweet! We went to their front door, met them, and gave them a little gift too. Soon we were greeting each other with smiles, waves and a few words here and there. They seemed to tolerate my hilarious grammar and my blank looks in response to their comments. So of course we went from "vous" to "tu."

Then came the dispute they have with our landlady, who also happens to be my darling mother-in-law. On Christmas day it was clear from the icy stare and perfunctory greeting we received from monsieur that, to him, we were tainted. Later that morning he refused our Christmas gift to the family, even though we explained that we had no say in the dispute he had with my mother-in-law (though she's clearly in the right). His wife continues to wave and venture a smile when she isn't with him.

And so I found myself confronted with a French language situation never discussed by any of my able teachers: going backwards from the warm "tu" to the frosty "vous."

It was actually easy. I've made up my mind to keep greeting my asshole neighbor with a smile and a wave and pleasant greeting in hopes he comes to his senses. Except now, instead of "Comment va-tu ?" I say "Comment allez-vous ?"

Next week at French class I'm going to present this thorny situation to the class. Who knows how they will react? The current class members are from Bosnia, Portugal, Brazil, Germany, Lebanon, Turkey, Afghanistan and Italy -- places where notions of land, government involvement, and neighborly intimacy vary widely. We've all been on the "tu" level for months. We'll see how it shakes out.


  1. "Comment vas-tu?" ... and how did it shake out?

  2. Salut Martin. It didn't. I brought up the matter to the class, and everyone stared at me silently. I think there were too many sensitive cross-cultural borders to cross to allow anyone to feel comfortable enough to engage in a discussion. Meanwhile, things are still frigid with those particular neighbors. But it's a new year, right?

  3. What a pity. I always find it intriguingly interesting how people perceive and value the same issue from very different, mostly cultural-biased perspectives. Though it is very often quite difficult for people coming from a rather mono-cultured-biased environment, such as Germany, Turkey or USA, just to mention a very few. Of course, I am very much aware of the fact that there are a huge number of different countries and cultures present in USA, and e.g. NYC is often being sited as the melting-pot (though recently rather referred to as a salad-bowl, i.e. though mixed but not melted together). Nevertheless the anglo-saxon culture is and stays THE defining one, especially regarding moral and ethical values. And I very often experience the inability of American followers that there could possibly be a different view on the world than their own and how difficult it is for them to accept this. But luckily there are always and sometimes numerous exceptions.
    And it is a pity that your neighbour is keeping you back down with his formal approach. You could say though, it is probably not the most wishful outcome, it at least represents the real, and therefore honest relationship you probably have now. Better than the other way around: to behave as if you were friends, but you aren't at all. From this point of view quite acceptable, don't you think so?