I Remember A Time

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Whether you’re 25, 46, 71 or only 15, some days you wake up and just feel old.  You look at the world and realize today is not the day to play because the game of life has gotten too damn complicated.  You remember a simpler time when things were straightforward and you knew all the rules.  A time when the days were long and bright and the nights romantic.  I time when – well, you get the idea – a time when it didn’t seem like an endless fight just to be alive.  Don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to turn back the clock.  The good old days are a myth propagated by grumpy old people who can’t figure out why they aren’t cool anymore.  (Maybe it’s cuz they use words like cool?)  However, on a bright winter morning when the coffee’s really good and there’s jam for the toast, there’s nothing wrong with being nostalgic.

Here are a few things, from a more elegant age, that I remember.

When people dressed up for important events.  Women wore their breasts inside their clothes, and men looked like they’d taken a bath – recently.

The days when you could see the pictures in an art gallery and not the backs of a bunch of cell phones and the half faces of morons taking selfies.

When the lyrics to popular songs didn’t prominently feature body parts, sexual positions, robbery, obscenities, weapons or murder — and you could actually sing them to children.

A time when people didn’t scold each other for the sport of it.

A time when young people had all the questions, not all the answers.

The sweet satisfaction of slamming the phone down in some asshole’s ear.

The days when the relationship between men and women was not adversarial.

Irony, satire and wit.

When you could order coffee without reciting the recipe, and you got to drink it out of a real cup.

A time when ladies and gentlemen acted that way.

Lunches that didn’t come wrapped in paper and look like they’d been run over by a truck.

When gluten wasn’t the scariest thing on the planet.

The days when the “Big O” was an orgasm, not Oprah Winfrey.

A time when you could ride public transportation without being forced to listen to somebody else’s one-sided telephone conversation – 7 or 8 times.

When the truth was not a moveable feast.

A time when Hallowe’en costumes were for kids and adults had better things to do than worry about whether Pocahontas was a Disney princess or cultural appropriation.

A time when cheating in professional sports was retail, not wholesale, and the people who did it weren’t stupid enough to get caught.

And finally:

The days when you weren’t constantly looking over your shoulder for a politically correct ambush.

Different Thoughts?

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Recently, a lot of very smart people have been quietly studying the next impossible question: which came first, language or culture?  Like the chicken and the egg conundrum – Uh, good luck solving that riddle — it does bring up an interesting concept.  Does language affect the way we look at the world?  Or, more precisely, do people who speak different languages think differently?

Wow!  This is a huge question that scholars are going to be pondering for years, but the simple answer is … yes.  Let me try to explain without sounding like some kind of philological fascist.

Every language has words that simply do not translate because every culture has concepts that don’t.  For example, the Hawaiian language has no word for “weather*.”  Why?  When your weather is consistently Paradise 2.0, you just don’t need an uncountable noun to describe it.  Meanwhile, in all Inuit languages, there are dozens of different words for snow.  They describe every variant imaginable in a world where survival depends on what kind of white stuff Mother Nature is throwing at you.  Both these linguistic imperatives make sense in their own neighbourhood, but they don’t to each other.  Hawaiians and the Inuit have totally different concepts of weather, and their language reflects that.

Likewise, every time I go to France, it takes me a couple of days to realize I’m not getting bad service in restaurants.  The problem is my concept of lunch is completely different from the French dejeuner.  The words mean exactly the same thing but … they aren’t.  In North America, we treat lunch as a necessary nuisance that’s done and gone, but in France it’s an important cultural ritual that can take a couple of hours.  Even though the words translate perfectly– one to one– they mean wildly different things.

But it’s not just cultural differences that influence language.

English has a ton of prepositions, but let’s just use “in” and “on.”  In Spanish, “in” and “on” are the same word: “en.”  Spanish speakers don’t differentiate.  They don’t think that way.

The Russians have a word “toska” which is kinda/ sorta,/maybe religious longing, but not really – uh — so much as a feeling of loss without knowing what is lost.  But you kinda have experience it to know what it feels like.

Hygge, fernweh and forelsket are also words that simply don’t translate into English.  It’s not that English speakers don’t have the same feelings as Danes, Germans or Norwegians; it’s just that we don’t think that way.

I don’t believe culture precedes language, but I do believe that, as a culture evolves, people simultaneously adapt their language to accommodate it.  Once that happens, the actual words tend to veer away from their objective meaning.  They get loaded up with information that’s specific to the speaker.  Words are the tools we use to express our thoughts, and sometimes those thoughts are incomprehensible to an outsider.  That’s why anybody who knows anything about language will tell you that to learn a language properly, you must first understand the culture.

 

*In contemporary usage, Hawaiians have borrow the Chinese word “huan” which loosely translates as change.

Stuff I Learned In Paris

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As I may have mentioned, we were recently in Paris (brag, brag) and after several days of keen observation, I’ve discovered a few things that are indicative of French culture.  This is boots-on-the-ground information that isn’t available on any website or in the guidebooks.  So, as a public service, I’m going to pass it on to you

Even a couple of old people can outmaneuver the “Yellow Vests” protesters (and the teargas) if they keep their noses in the wind and an eye on the cops to see which way they’re running.

When a Paris policewoman says “Attendez!” you better “attendez” right now — they don’t carry those little black clubs for nothing.

Parisian pedestrians are fearless.  They treat traffic signals as mere suggestions and oncoming cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles and those little, green hell-on-two-wheels scooters as some kinda personal challenge.

The Musee D’Orsay has been turned into a living piece of Installation Art where foreigners wander around, holding their telephones over their heads.  It’s an interesting concept, but I don’t see the point.  Oh!  And apparently, they have some paintings on the walls, too, but you can’t actually see them.

Fashion Week is a scam.  You can get all the Red Carpet you need by sitting in a sidewalk café with a glass of wine.

French clothes fit.  French women’s clothes fit very well.

The only thing more romantic than a warm Parisian afternoon is a wool-scarf chilly Parisian evening.

French people have sexy hardwired into their DNA.

There’s an established rumour that French waiters are surly, arrogant and rude.  Oddly enough, none of the ones we met got that memo.

French bread is the best in the world.  And (little known fact) if you eat in a French restaurant, they have to, by law, provide you with free bread.  Apparently, this has something to do with that nasty “Let them eat cake” business.

And finally:

The all-night cultural event, Nuit Blanche, proved to me — once and for all — I’m not as young as I used to be.