Jamie Lee Curtis can do anything…. write, act, parent, advocate, chew the scenery. Literally. In the under loved, A Fish Called Wanda, she writhes about chewing said scenery as John Cleese spouts Italian and later Russian. Our beauteous heroine, used only to the linguistic stylings of the the brutish Otto (a brilliantly cast Kevin Kline) is overwhelmed by the fluency of Cleese, resulting in the aforementioned scenery destruction.
I’ve never been quite that bad, though languages have long fascinated me. Booker T. Washington, the great American educator, notes that English is a polyglot language, “we don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” Of course, my earliest and most enduring love is la langue française — it’s incredibly beautiful to speak, read and hear. One of my great joys is at this point I can read French poetry & prose, translating as I wander through the discourse without considering in which language I am thinking. I can remember my first French words, as a little girl walking into buildings with my Daddy, as he would swing open a massive door (ok I was 5) and say, “J’oeuvre la porte.” It was always French, once in a while an English accent would floor me — but oh no, not German. In fact, in one of the more embarrassing moments of my teenage years. I was arguing with Mark as we wandered down the echo-y hallway where the language classrooms were found. German, I insisted, was guttural — it had nowhere near the lyricism of French, the passion of Italian, the tradition of Latin…. as I rounded the corner, secure in my romance language pomposity Herr Baer (yes, we will give him a Little Women alias) ran smack into me. “Fraulein Aly,” he began… and gave me an impassioned defense of the language of Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven and my ever so loved Weber… While, at the time, I did a lovely impression of a “whatev…girl” — I later realized German has words and concepts that no other language can capture. For example, one of my favorites is, “waldeinsamkeit,” that notion that you are alone in the woods. I came to the word which makes it sounds a little “supercalifragilistic” because of a poem written by Emerson — and like so many of his poems, the words seduced me and the ideas made me rush for the dictionary…
Where French became mine, and I truly embraced the idea that I could speak the language of my great-grandmother was in college with Mssr. Chauvigné. One of the most entertaining men, I ever met in my life — his stories about the maquis in WWII, about French Gabon, and his insistence that I could make it living in Paris solo. He gave me knowledge, confidence, lots of compliments and an appreciation of the French unconfined by castles, and pictures in romantic histories. Jacques Prévert was one of those Renaissance type artists — with a life spanning the majority of the 20th century, he fought in WW1, and embraced cinema, and poetry and social commentary — creating memorable films, children’s stories, and is often considered France’s most popular poet, with the love and disdain such a sobriquet engenders. Called an “easy-going muse” by one reviewer, he used ordinary language to create deceptively simple verses that illuminate the human condition with painterly strokes:
Quel jour sommes-nous What day is today
Nous sommes tous les jours We are every day
Mon amie my friend
Nous sommes toute la vie We are all living
Mon amour my love
Nous nous aimons et nous vivons We love each other and we live
Nous vivons et nous nous aimons We live and we love
Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que la vie And we do not know what it is that life
Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que le jour And we do not know what it is that the day
Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que l’amour And we do not know what it is that love.
Chanson by Jacques Prévert
universal words (though many of them are French, et voilà…):
- Voulez-Vous (ABBA, or from Mamma Mia) — nothing promised, no regrets….. though “do you wanna” sounds far more polite in French, yes?
- It’s you I love (Beausoleil) — Cajun French is not the same thing as either Canadian French or French proper — as one discovers trying to negotiate the music and the geography — that one of the joys of Beausoleil’s global appeal and their perfectly rendered version of this song just makes you smile, you want to dance and whirl tumbling between French & English.
- La Bamba (Los Lobos) — their cover of the Richie Valens’ classic is a thing of beauty — almost note for note, yet it has a flair that Los Lobos brings to everything…
- C’est Si Bon (Yves Montand) — Yves originally turned this down, and it was sung by Jean Marco — after its success in French & English (think Eartha Kitt) — he discovered he wanted to sing it — I love the line, “Cest si bon/De se dire des mots doux,”
- Dime Mi Amor (Los Lonely Bpys) — lots of time dismissed as Los Lobos wannabes, they are a fun pop band — with strong lyrics
- Bei Mir Bist du Schön (Andrews Sisters/Puppini Sisters) — Beautiful being the operative word — this song put the Andrews sisters on the map in 1937. It was a worldwide hit, including topping the charts in Hitler’s Germany — until it was discovered that the song was originally, “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” a Yiddish musical hall number. Quickly banned, the song outlasted politics and wars as a swing statement of beauty….
- La Marseillaise (Slovak National Orchestra) — incredible version of a national anthem, which can instantly transport you to a French state of mind
- Mi Vida Loca (Pam Tillis) — several people say I look a little like her, but more than that I like how she crafts a song — this one is funny, and ever so apt —
- Paris (ooh la la) (Grace Potter & the Nocturnals)– It’s a raucous little sexy bullet of a song — and other than the title, not French at all.
- Solea (Miles Davis) — If I’ve never mentioned it, Sketches of Spain would be a desert island album for me — Davis & Gil Evans based the entire album around the classical, “Concierto de Aranjuez” — and the music on the entire album is a wordless narrative of passionate and latin rhythms…
- April in Paris (Count Basie) & Djangology (Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grapelli) — when I was imagining running away and living in Paris towards the end of my college years — these are songs that I had on constant rotation — I knew that I wouldn’t be going to the old Left Bank of writers & artists, or the new wave 50s — but there was much dreaming
- Talk Dirty to Me (PostModern Jukebox) — Jason Derulo’s little sexy tune re-imagined as a a vintage klezmer tune, translating the rap into Yiddish…. and strangely it works
- Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes (Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mambazo) — South African men’s choirs have the most engaging rhythms, and with Graceland, Paul Simon engineered worldwide exposure for an incredibly rich musical tradition
- La Vie en Rose (Edith Piaf) — some songs are just perfect, whether they are English, Swahili, Martian or in this case French — or more specifically Edith Piaf’s warm, achy vibrato pulling you headfirst into the melody
- Lady Marmalade (from Moulin Rouge) — “Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir” when Patti LaBelle first sang this, everyone wanted someone from French class to translate it for them — love the reboot for Moulin Rouge — they kept the spirit while giving it a context
- Ring of Fire (Mingo Saldivar) — incredible Tejano accordionist — his version of Ring of Fire is splendid — original, traditional and just plain fun!
- C’est La Vie (EmmyLou Harris) — you never can tell — one of those “comme çi, comme ça” songs — gallic shrug with an “et voilà” what is, is…
- Gaelic Song (Rhiannon Giddens & Carolina Chocolate Drops) — omg, look this up on YouTube — I will wait….. ok, isn’t that the most amazing thing… I have see her do that live twice and each time, there’s a point in the song where I just stop breathing, I am so enthralled
Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag –> Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn