Friday, December 29, 2023

Welcome, Stranger, part one. French, part one.

This is my last essay this year, but I will continue the series in 2024.

As I said in my previous essay, I have just moved to Strasbourg, France. It is a relief to be here, where life is just not as dangerous as in America. In America, there may be more guns than people. And in America, if you need a bottle of Jardiance pills for diabetes, you will have to pay $800, even if you have Medicare and supplemental insurance. In France, it will be a long time before I qualify for French health care, but even if I have to buy pills for myself, it won’t be any freaking $800.

But meanwhile, I am going through a period of adjustment. This is the inspiration for my short series, Welcome, Stranger. Today, the French language.

One problem with the French people is that they speak French. And French is a very difficult language. To people who have grown up speaking it, it is simple, and this is true for any language in the world. My granddaughter, age 5, already talks in French, not thinking about grammar or vocabulary. She just learned it from the other kids at school. She has even gotten the French snotty-sounding R, perhaps a little too much. But for older people like myself, learning a new language is difficult. I have studied French not intensely but consistently for ten years, and I can read it fairly well, and construct a few simple sentences. But a French person speaking at full speed leaves me behind in the dust. I watch Jamy Gourmaud’s Youtube videos, but even at speed 0.75 I can only understand it with the French subtitles.

In Paris, I am told (having been there as briefly as possible on my way to or from Strasbourg), the people pretend to not understand you if you try to speak French. This has led to some comedy routines such as Chef Louis and Garrison Keillor on the old Prairie Home Companion radio shows. Keillor would try to order something off of the menu, and the waiter would get angry at him: “Why did you call my mother a suitcase?” But in Strasbourg, at least, if a native English speaker is quiet, polite, and makes a sincere effort, most people are appreciative. In our suburb, Hoenheim, we are about the only Americans, and my wife and I have the reputation of being the cute little old couple who are trying to speak French.

Don’t get me wrong. French is a wonderful language. Even just to look at it is beautiful. One of the first things you will notice is the diacritical marks. Lots of them. They have two kinds of accent marks for e, one of them rising, the other falling. What is a shepherd? Il élève des moutons. They denote slight differences in pronunciation. Sometimes diacritical marks denote differences in meaning; a means he/she/it has, while à means to. A C with a cedilla means that the C, which would normally sound like a K before vowels a, o, and u, instead sounds like an S: Ça y est! And then there is the circumflex, which as far as I can tell exists only to designate that, in the past, the vowel was followed by an s or an x. In French, forest has become forêt, castle has become château, and hostel has become hôtel. Être used to be like the Spanish estar (to be). When you look at a page of French writing, the diacritical marks poke at you like the piqûres of mosquitoes. It is surely (sûrement) and extremely (extrêmement) thrilling.

And the French love their diacritical marks. Recently the French Academy, the gatekeeper of French language, decided that diacritical marks were unnecessary. But the marks are still everywhere. The French love them because they are part of what it means to be French! You will find them even at tram stops, as in these two photos: the Général DeGaulle tram stop, and the map that says you are here (vous êtes ici).

If the government tried to remove the diacritical marks from public signs, there would probably be a big strike that would shut down the tram lines. Give us back our diacritical marks! Strike is grève, where we get our word grievance.)

 I have more examples in the next essay. See you then.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

My New Science Education Career

As Fluff told you in the previous essay, I have moved to Strasbourg, France. I was really relieved to get here, and could not have done it without extensive help from my daughter and French son-in-law. They had almost everything ready for us, and are helping us with the rest.

I joked that I was going to be a full-time grandpa. But, as it turns out, that is mostly what is happening. I had fantasies about traveling in Europe, at least in the “Schengen zone” where the only thing you need is a European passport. Not all Schengen countries are in the European Union, with a common currency, but they erect no barriers to one country’s approved residents traveling to another. I thought I would go to see all the natural areas, and continue posting videos and essays about the natural landscape of France. But I am having plenty of challenges even without leaving Strasbourg. Just learning our way around, establishing a bank account, learning to use the tram, and buying a few things keeps me and my wife occupied when I am not reading, writing little essays like this, or staying with my grandkids. The cultural transition I am now experiencing will take several months. Then I can think about travel.

That is my new science education career: teaching my grandkids about the wonders of science. There are a lot of things that I have taken for granted ever since I was a little child, such as the fact the Earth is roughly spherical; it rotates at an angle; it revolves around the sun, and this accounts for the seasons. I just assumed everybody knew this, but my grandkids will have to learn it from me, or from school, hopefully both. And to do this, my wife and I just bought them a globe, nearly identical to the one that I had when I was a child. The fact that the Earth turns, rather than the sun moving across the sky, is not something that you can just see from the ground. It is something you have to deduce from evidence. I feel anew the sense of discovery I had as a child.

The globe also has raised mountains, which will allow me to show the kids how Tibet differs from France in more ways than one. It will also allow me to explain rain shadows. I can also explain the Gulf Stream, which is why Strasbourg, at 48 degrees north, has a moderate climate.

I assumed that everyone knew that when it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it is summer in the Southern, and vise versa. But apparently this is not true. A wild right-wing commentator, Dinesh D’Souza, was so angry at global warming science that he would grab at every bit of information he could find to discredit it. In a recent year, he heard that Australia had snow in August. D’Souza proudly declared, how can there be snow in August if there is global warming? He did not know August is winter in Australia. This is something my grandkids will know before they finish elementary school. D’Souza was briefly the president of the King’s College, a fundamentalist Christian college in New York. He was forced to resign, not for ignorance, but for the fact that he had an affair with the wife of one of the administrators of the college.

The only problem with the globe is that it is labeled in Italian. But here in Europe, no matter which country you are in, you are surrounded by other languages. Italy is only a few hundred kilometers south, closer than Spain. So this is not really a problem.

And this is just the first step. Within the next year or so, we will get the grandkids a microscope (surprisingly cheap) which will open new worlds to them, I hope, as it did for me. And a music synthesizer. I hope they will grow up learning music as a language and a form of expression, not just as a pleasant (or annoying) background to other activities. A telescope? Maybe not, since, so far, every night and most days have been cloudy, thanks to the Gulf Stream.

I even thought about making videos and writing essays in French about science and nature. But it will take a long time for me to have enough fluency in French to do this. I will never be another Jamy Gourmaud. I will just never speak or write French well enough. The French language is the subject of my next essay.


Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Similarities and Differences: The Tenth Message from Fluff the Cottonwood

Fluff the cottonwood here again. My ninth message was the most recent post. I just heard from Stan. He wanted me to tell all of you that he has now finished his permanent relocation to France. You will be hearing directly from him in the near future.

Since Stan is a botanist, one of the first things he did was to start learning European trees. He has not had much direct experience yet, as the leaves were falling when he arrived, and have now all fallen. But he wants to be ready for hiking in the mountains with his French family—the parents, uncles, and cousins on his son-in-law’s side—in the spring. And as usual for this blog he has a message about evolution.

In a photo book about French trees, Stan recognized most of the types of trees, such as maples (érables), alders (aulnes), birches (bouleaux), dogwoods (cornouillers), hornbeams (charmes), hazelnuts (noisetiers), chestnuts (châtagniers; European chestnuts did not die the way American ones did), oaks (chênes), beeches (hêtres), walnuts (noyers), ashes (frênes), sycamores (platanes), willows (saules), lindens (tilleuls), and elms (ormes). But in each case, the genera were the same but the species were different. This is because the deciduous forests of Europeand North America have been separate for millions of years, which sounds like a long time but is only long enough for new species to evolve within the genera that already existed.

The main one Stan told me about was the poplars (peupliers). Down by the river trail near his new apartment, he saw big trees that looked exactly like me. The leaves appeared to be just a little shorter and wider, but otherwise it was a cottonwood. Only in Europe it is called black poplar (peuplier noir). I am Populus deltoides; the European species is Populus nigra. The black poplar leaves look more like mine than do the leaves of another North American species, Populus fremontii, the Fremont cottonwood. I am more genetically related to the European species than I am to the species found in western North America.

Back in America, Stan would normally have launched into a speech about how this is evidence of each species having evolved in its own distinct location, rather than being the remnants of a Flood of Noah. But in France, nobody cares. There are essentially no creationists in France. There are no global warming deniers. Stan will discontinue a lot of what he was writing in America and focus on the positive and interesting things about evolution, botany, and science.