Wednesday, July 09, 2008

J’ai cassé la chaîne

Note: due to issues of practical necessity (i.e. how the hell am I gonna get 100 insightful, well-developed thoughts and stimulating impressions written on this blog?) this list is now about my experiences in France and learning French.

11. Sitting, talking, drinking. Maybe, just maybe, life doesn’t have to be a rush of over-caffeinated warmongering accusational testosterone-fueled stress cookies. People here seem to spend a fair amount of time just chilling out, sitting down, having a drink, checking out the scene. And that’s OK.

12. Life on the street. Speaking of the scene...why would you want to sit on the street in a Starbucks or Jamba Juice looking out upon a strip mall parking lot, an expanse of concrete with the sun glinting off the rims and mirrors of an army of SUVs? Or sitting overlooking the vastly underpopulated sidewalks of many American cities? I may be comparing apples and oranges—a critical take on suburban scenes from the U.S. after years of experience, vs. a number of days in some major metropolitan centers in France—but I have spent dozens upon dozens of hours walking, and there are cafes everywhere with tables, chairs outside.

Sure, this is something I knew from before and even have experience with to a limited degree—not totally new. But I think it bears mentioning because of just how everything’s arranged. Namely, everyone seems to be looking out. To the street. Whereas I had expected if a couple were going to sit down, or a couple of friends for that matter, they might sit across from each other with the table between them. Don’t you go out somewhere to look at each other in a different context?

That is how seats are arranged in a lot of the cases here to be sure, but what I was struck with (in Paris especially) was the number of places where chairs are arranged side-by-side, friends, couples, or people sitting by themselves looking out at the life in the street.

What, then, is the life in the street? Or is that it at all? What is everyone looking at? Surely, more than the curious tourist wondering what everyone’s looking at...

13. Verb of the day: Casser. To break. I wonder if there’s anything to the idea that it takes a contextualizing experience, or a counterpoint experience, a metaphorical projection, or some other way of getting distance on a word or expression before you can really learn it. Romain had just explained to me what you should say if a couple breaks up. Of course there are other expressions but if you want to be colloquial and leave no doubts about the state of the relationship you could say, “Ils ont cassé.” (they broke up). I think he made a rough and sudden pulling apart gesture with his two hands, indicating the rupture.

Good enough for the time being, but the word was cemented the next morning when I was riding my VeloV from home to ENS. I knew I had a clunker—the chain was skipping and grinding a little bit as I rode but it was holding up. I took it down the walking path along the quai of the Rhône. Beautiful morning, some clouds in the sky and a vibrant blue. Everything was fine until the little uphill segment which, given the gearing on the bike, I really had to grind up.

Push. Push. Push. Push again, and then >BOOM<.

My legs go flying and the pedals are spinning around, suddenly free from their lifelong connection to the crank to the chain to the gears to the wheel to the ground. And with no purpose.

I had about 15 minutes left on the bike and was wondering how I was going to get to Debourg just walking or pushing the bike. Got up to the street level, thought I’d try to use the bike like a scooter but after a few scoots the damn chain got stuck inside the plastic housing around the rear wheel. I stopped and struggled to get it out, pulling the chain while tryhing to stabilize the bike, the whole assemblage moving around in circles. I must have looked pretty helpless because a guy about my age came up to me and asked what happened.

Of course, I didn’t have the words but he figured it out soon enough when he saw my greasy hands.

“Ah! Tu as cassé la chaîne.”
“Cassé, tu as cassé la chaîne.”

You broke the chain.

He probably didn’t realize why I was asking him to repeat himself, but at that minute there was a bond forming in my mind between the broken chain on the bike and the separated couple that Romain was telling me about the night before. Ils ont cassé. Et j’ai cassé la chaîne.

He kindly explained where a closer VeloV station was, which of course I didn’t understand, and I thanked him and was on my way. Oh well. One verb at a time.

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