Letter from Aix-en-Provence
JAN: When I was a kid, I loved secret languages. My friend Karen had older sisters who taught them to us. There was one language that involved adding "ub" or "ubba" between the syllables. As in Jungubbalububba Redubba writubbaters. Or something like that. All that mattered was it sounded incredibly exotic and your best friend could understand you in the playground. Better yet, you could talk about boys when they were right there, and they never got it. Boys didn’t go in much for secret languages.
That quickly gave way to Pig Latin, which was a more highly respected and widely understood secret language. You had to be more careful in your usuage, but there was the possibility of an older junior high school student actually picking up on something you said and responding to you in your oh-so-in-crowd special code.
When I got to high school, I quickly fell in love with first year French, which was so pretty and way more exotic than Pig Latin. Had Cinderella originally been from France and spoken to her fairy godmother in French? I was pretty sure she had.
But French was a hell of a lot harder to speak and understand. And the challenge was on. I wound up taking eight years of French, minoring in it in college and did a semester abroad in Aix-en-Provence. Although I work hard to try to keep up on my French via Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone, I’m still pretty much a piker. But God knows, I try.
Which is why I’m back in Aix-En-Provence for a month, living in a condo, and shopping at the Monoprix and the market, which requires more use of French than staying at a hotel where the concierge can step in and help. Last week, my daughter and I went to the market to buy ingredients we were making for a special dinner that night. We bought cheeses, which I promptly put down when I went to another vendor and searched through my wallet for five euros to buy sunflowers.
By the time I got home, realized I didn’t have the cheeses and ran back to the square, the market stalls were down, the garbage trucks had rolled in, and everyone was cleaning up. I raced back to the cheese guy to see if I could buy more cheese. To get him to reopen his stall and sell me some, I had to explain what I’d done.
J’ai perdu mon sac du fromage quand j’ai achete des fleurs, I told him. This also included a lot of hand gesturing to both indicate where the sunflower vendor had been and that I was clearly a space shot (finger pointed to head with roll of the eyes and shrug).
Not only did he open to sell me the cheese, he gave me a one Euro discount because he felt sorry for me.
And I thought, my God, the SECRET LANGUAGE WORKS.
I realize that on some level, I think that every time I say anything to anyone in French and they understand and respond. There is always this rush of both surprise and excitement that these exotic words I’ve strung together form a sentence that can be decoded.
It's why I spent all that money on airfare. And well worth every penny.
So I think, that the thrills in life haven’t changed much for me since I was a kid in the playground, only in France, I’ve noticed that the crowd "in" on the decoding is pretty signficant. And you have to watch what you say -- and not just to the junior high schoolers. All the boys are in on the secret language, too.
(Do you remember any secret languages from elementary and junior high school? Apparently, it's a regional thing with Ubba Dubba in the Northeast and Gibberish in the South. Gungi was spoken in Waltham, MA and Opish in New York City.)