The Madonna Complex

Learning French, Living Abroad

“Ooooh la la, man,” my friend proclaims loudly at the bar.

I am with an expat friend from Central Europe and complaining about a horrific exchange I had with the administrator at a French language school

“Mais oauis,” I respond. “It is totally ridiculous. I mean, n’importe quoi!”

“Defo,” she says, raising her glass. “Na zdravi!”

“Cheers,” I respond, before turning towards MB and saying, “Santé!”

He smiles back, clinking glasses, “Chin,” he says.

In less than two minutes of conversation, we have managed to cover four different cultures and none of us even noticed…

This type of situation is the just the beginning of language confusion for me. Even within English, things can get complicated. I remember returning to USA and visiting friends after 3 years of living “down under.” I hadn’t realized that anything had changed but clearly, I was the only one.

“Give me a break,” one of my friends had said, laughing.

“What,” I was totally confused.

“Oh come on, “Madonna,’” she had continued (Madonna the pop-star, not Jesus’ Mum). “I know you are putting it on – “sweet as” and “suss it out,” what are these phrases you are using, and that accent is ridiculous. We get it, you have been overseas, no need for the theatricals.”

She then exchanged knowing, humorous looks with our other friends.

I stared, outraged. Now, I may be an enormous nerd (eh…”may”…”am”…semantics) but I draw the line at being accused of trying to subtlety create an accent in order to sound cool – I mean, let’s get serious, if I were going to do that, there is no way I would pull off subtlety OR coolness, they are not qualities that I would consider to be my forte. However, there I was, being called a Madonna-esque accent faker! I reacted as any normal person would: I bristled, then drank heavily, started a stupid fight, and went home feeling confused, stupid, and embarrassed.

“I’m not Madonna,” I told myself. “She’s a weird poser, I’m not like that, my accent just changed a bit because I’ve been living overseas…wait, what…oh man…dang it.”

That is the moment when I realized that, even though Madonna behaves absolutely bizarrely in so many ways, maybe we need to lay off her a bit on the accent thing…it may not be in her control, her brain has probably just thrown in the towel (I feel like there is a joke here but I’m going to leave it alone out of respect for the Immaculate Collection).

Language can undergo some weird transformations when you are constantly around different accents or tongues. Here are a few examples:

  1. You start using the vernacular of others around you, such as my Central European friend creating the phrase “oooh la la, man,” a combination of French and American, or my usage of “n’importe quoi” instead of “whatever.” Are these expressions that exist in our languages? Not even close, but after hearing certain words often, they sneak in and set up house in your brain…like little word parasites. Mwahahahahahaha! Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?
  2. Your cadence of speech can also change, something that is so embarrassing for me. For example, I am physically incapable of talking to an Irish person without starting to sing-song every sentence, like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun. It is horrifying and just as cringe-worthy as it sounds.
  3. Your sentence structure can take a beating as well.   After living in France for 3 years, instead of saying things like “are you going to the store,” I say, “you are going to the store, yes?” And MB, is often asked by other French people where he is from because while his accent is obviously French, he structures his sentences like an English speaker (incidentally, he loves this and has no fear of the Madonna complex, instead he looks sneakily happy and smug any time someone asks him).

Basically, the point is that your language, inside of your head, controlled by your brain, spoken by your mouth can go completely rogue without you even realizing it.

Cue screams of terror. A woman covers a child protectively while a young girl raises her hands to her cheeks and shrieks.

“We thought we understood,” the narrator says. “We thought it was all under our control but now…now…”

There are scenes of panic as people push each other down trying to run away.

IT has a mind of its own, nothing we say, nothing we do can keep it in check, it just keeps evolving and changing…like some sick, twisted MUTANT!”

Cue more screams, blah blah blah.

Mutant language on the move!

Now that I am living in a completely different linguistic environment, a whole new layer of weird has developed. Instead of carefully cataloguing and categorizing languages like it did when I was in school, my brain seemingly throws them all into a big box and lets me pick whatever I want. Forget worrying about funny little vernacular differences, now I have to battle it out in my head just to try to arrive at a word in the correct tongue. For instance, last time I was in Italy, Spanish kept coming out of my mouth; and in Munich a few months back, I kept saying things in French (as though my brain were thinking, “oh it is foreign, French is foreign, poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to). There have even been instances in which I have gotten confused with English, like when an American friend was visiting and I kept giving her the translations she was asking for back in French…huh? It didn’t even register to me that I wasn’t speaking to her in English until she told me.

Basically, once I left US soil, my brain decided that it can’t be bothered delineating between different Anglo accents or phrasery (yes, I made up that word, you don’t like it, blame my brain) or which foreign languages belong in what places, it has just gotten utterly lazy.

My Brain: *yawn* I can’t be responsible for keeping all of this straight, it’s just too much. I mean, I’m already spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out all the different Game of Thrones plotlines.

ME: But how am I supposed to know what to say?

My Brain: OH my god, you are so high maintenance. Just pick something, I’m sure everyone will figure it out. Here, I’ve put everything into this closet in your frontal lobe, voila!

ME: But it isn’t even organized, how will I ever find anything?

My Brain:Not my problem.

ME: What? Yes, it is. That is basically your entire job.

My Brain: Meh. Now, explain to me again which ones are Baratheons?

*Sigh*

So there it is, I suppose I am stuck with having the “Madonna Complex”…or maybe just “The Chandler.”

 

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On the Road to Nowhere

Holidays in France, Travel in France

“Are you looking at the map, which way do we turn here?”  MB is talking to me while driving as I search both the map and the road for a sign.

“I’m looking,” I wail, “but I’m telling you I can’t even figure out what road we are on!”

MB sighs and pulls over and I can tell he is blaming this confusion solely on the fact that I have…meh…not a great sense of direction (seriously, it is a miracle I can make it out of walk-in closets).  

“Let me see,” he says, relieving me of the map and scanning the page.

I wait as he looks at the map, then looks up at the road, then down at the map, then up at the road, over and over again.

“You look like a bird eating bird seed,” I say.  I’m so helpful.

“Quoi,” he says with irritation in his voice.  I realize he has not heard my statement at all…he is “in the map.*”

He steps out of the car and walks toward the intersection, searching for a street sign, looking on sides of abandoned sheds.  Finally he spots something and I see him throw his hands up in frustration before returning to the car.

“(French expletive),” he says, shutting the car door. “I mean, this is ridiculous.”

I shrug and smile at him smugly serenely.  Mwahahahahaha!  Now who has no sense of direction, huh?!  (yeah, that would still be me.)

“I mean, how can both directions be correct,” he says angrily as he points to the only apparent sign.

I burst out laughing as I look at the signage: TOUTES DIRECTIONS = all directions.  Beneath these words are arrows, one pointing to the left and one pointing to the right.  It might as well say: make something up.

“ARGH!!!!”  MB gives a shout of irritation and I have to force away a smile.  (Sometimes it is really funny to me when MB gets angry because he is usually so calm.  Does this make me a bad person?  …possibly.)

After a few minutes of debating with himself and looking further down the map MB decides to just pick a direction and hope for the best…I mean, it’s not like it would be the first time.

***

You remember the movie Labyrinth?  If not, I would be happy to give you a one woman show BECAUSE IT IS AWESEOME (David FREAKIN Bowie).  Anyway, I digress…do you remember this scene – go to about the 2min mark:

That pretty much sums up what it is like to drive around on back roads through France (minus the hot androgynous fairy king).  On the highways it is no problem, even the smaller national highways are great and well-signed but once you get off the beaten path, you are on your own.  Street signs may or may not exist and the indicated directions often have an “all roads lead to Rome” style.  Even for MB it can be a struggle.

“OH please, she is just being silly, I mean, doesn’t she know everyone has GPS these days.” 

HA!  I scoff at your GPS…and so does France.  Do you remember that episode of “The Office” when Michael drives into a lake because the GPS tells him to?  Yeah, well, that scenario happened to us in Provence (incidentally, we chose not to drive into the large tree indicated).

“Yeah, but I’ll still have my IPhone, I can pull up maps or call someone.”

No you can’t, France will take away your cell phone reception too.  When you are traveling through the countryside, cell phone reception is spotty, to say the least.  Basically, consider back roads as a personal challenge issued to you from France.

FRANCE:  HA!  You want to go on a nice weekend road trip?  That is fine but don’t think it will come easy – you have to work for it!

ME:  But France, WHHHHHHY?!

FRANCE:  Don’t question me – I am France, I am full of enigmas!

That is pretty much how the challenge is issued.

So, when that moment arrives and your GPS tells you to drive into someone’s barn, dust off those wilderness skills (Girl Scouts 4 EVA), pull out one of those old-fashioned paper things with directions on it and figure out from the placement of the sun which way is North…

…or stop and ask for directions – the answer can’t be nearly as confusing as trying to figure it out yourself.

 

*In the Map!  Remember this from “Friends?”