Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Local Knowledge

The Mediterranean Winter has finally shown its true colors. Rain and ennui has descended upon Montpellier, but, I am told, it will soon pass. Gloom then seems to be the norm for the moment at least, but then again, I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest long enough that there is nothing shocking here.

Local knowledge proves itself again and again to be invaluable. The problem with localized knowledge is that it must be earned, and usually through, to be charitable, painful “character building” processes. On the other hand, being an American in Europe does have in advantages. Europeans set the bar very low for the American intellect or ability to grasp much of anything and as a result, any display of knowledge or of being cultured is met with amazement. Such was the case with a particular Magyar who I managed to, gain the affections of through a working knowledge of classical music. She repeatedly stated how shocked she was not only that I had heard of Debussy, Ravel, Lssizt and Bartok, but that I could name pieces of music by them, and even, through use of computer, play them. And so I had found a gimmick.

Having a “gimmick” is very important sometimes. When one is, to coin a politically salient/correct term, “aesthetically disabled” – and I have been told that I have a good face for radio – one is driven towards some form of compensation. I have always relied on the verbal, if only because I find it hard to shut up sometimes, but in France, where my grasp of the French lexicon is not all that it could be, and as I have documented previously, I have had to find new, and far less verbose means of expression. This realization came to me after seeing borrowed bits of Blake, Colleridge, Wilde, and even Verlaine (in the original French no less,) crash to pieces on the shores of (mis?)translation and cultural impropriety. The local knowledge: the information of societal norms and cultural references that in many ways defines a society, is not mine. Here though, I had found a point on continuity with an intelligent and lovely European that did not center around an American pop-culture that I have never quite understood.

We decided that it would be one of those nice George Elliot novel type flings - the kind where everyone has a nice time; everyone learns a little something about themselves and leaves (and indeed there was a pre-existing time table do to the departure of my partner in fling’s impending return to Hungary). This of course, as always, gives way to the more Henry Miller type fling, which tends to end in ennui and dissatisfaction, but really, one must take ones “adventures” from time to time. The Victorians were all a band of sexually repressed prudes anyways. With the aid of a pocket dictionary I started trying to fall back on more flowery language, but without local knowledge this proved to be my undoing. As those that know me well know, I have a certain interest and tendency to comment on, interesting noses - especially of the Eastern European variety. This has resulted in a purely superficial admiration for the (familial Hungarian) Sarkozy government in France. The nose makes the state, but I digress. In an effort to convey this particular aesthetic quirk of mine, and in the hope of coming off as cute, I told the girl that I quite fancied her nose, using the French verb “envie” which my pocket dictionary assured me was both appropriate and safe. What those charlatans at Larousse failed to share with me was that the verb "envie" is used far more commonly as a euphemism for something far more "rigorous". This compounded with my correct translation of the part about the nose and you get the picture.

So while George Elliot giving way to Henry Miller seemed like a logical bit of continuity, the push to the literary world of the Marquis De Sade, and nostril penetration, proved to be too much. Unsurprisingly, certain forgotten “errands” were quickly remembered and I was left wondering, until a French friend clarified matters for me later that evening, what was so offensive about talking about a nose. I suppose the look of shock and horror should have been the tip off that my translation had gone a bit off, but I thought she was just touchy about her nose. Of course I tried to explain the mix up later, but when you need to explain later, it usually isn’t a good sign. And by then, in her mind, the possibility of culturally enlightened Americans had been forever muddied with grotesque, though unintended, sexual deviance.

Local knowledge earned. I am wizened and certainly not bitter – and who can be bitter when the error in question is that funny? Not quite my finest linguistic moment, but it solves any future problem of entanglement. And sometimes, it is better to simply be happy when it rains.


bluesbuddha said...

Hey Alex,

Nice work. It's interesting what you said about violence. Working "in the moment" to save the man's life in violence is the most human we've seen you. So maybe violence and dealing with it is the great humanizer. You did good.

Local knowledge is also good. Anything that has to be earned is worth more than something handed out on street corners or on TV. Earning it means putting in your time and listening. You'll earn a lot of it in Peace Corps.

My thesis adviser just asked if I had a chance to meet "Thelonius" last semester - that being you. So lay off the book knowledge and go for the wisdom. We're all rooting for you.

Much joy,

Collin said...

How can your readers not love the collision of ignorance and cultures as the two, in youth and foreign land, hungry for difference, smitten by forces that may have less to do with club-tounged attempts at artful language and more to do with the universal lexicon d'amore, clamber awkward and half confused within their mutual differences, before the glow of the great assimilator (yes, I said ass.imilator). I can't wait to hear what happens next! Will the new internationalism ditch Esperanto for the language of love? Hope stands baited.because, after all, jumps gaps.especially when it's Hungary (and many other post-Bloc nations.)