I went to a “language exchange” the other night. 7 minutes in one language, 7 minutes in the other, and then you change to someone new. It works out well–you speak with a pretty random cross-section of people, you get to try your hand at understanding lots of dialects, ages, and speech rates, and usually you learn something. Hopefully they do, too.
With one of my conversation partners, we started in English. “Since we’re speaking English, I’m going to ask you all of the questions that an American would ask you, but a French person wouldn’t–where you’re from, what your job is…”
“Actually, French people ask each other those kinds of questions when they meet, too,” he replied. ” What we don’t ask each other about is families–you don’t talk about family with someone you don’t know well.”
Indeed, the French are, in general, far slower to talk about family than Americans are. And there’s one question that, I think more than any other, you don’t ask a French person: what did your family do during the war? If they want you to know, they’ll tell you. Uncle Jean-Paul was a fighter in the Resistance? It’ll get worked into the conversation. Mom got arrested by the Gestapo while she was pregnant with your big sister? It’ll come up without you asking. (I’ll tell you mine: one of my uncles was in the Resistance. According to another uncle’s autobiography, he was executed by the Germans, along with a bunch of his buddies. The uncle who survived to write an autobiography was in the Army, apparently mostly spending his time driving trucks and teaching boxing to the son of an Army officer who thought his kid was a bit effeminate and wanted him toughened up a bit.) Otherwise: don’t ask. Plenty of French resisted the Nazis, and plenty of those, like my uncle, paid with their lives. Others collaborated–the reason that the French government is not allowed to collect most demographic information today is that when the Germans told the Parisian police to go round up the Jews, they had no trouble finding them, because everyone’s religion was recorded in the local records. (Altogether, French people sent around 70,000 French Jewish fellow citizens to the death camps. (Wikipedia says 78,853.) Under 1,000 came back.) Most people just ate Jerusalem artichokes and rutabaga (cattle fodder otherwise) and tried to stay alive.
The reason I bring this up: America is in a world of shit right now. But, we’re not going to be in this particular world of shit forever. The hallucinatory world that Trump has brought us will end–eventually, America always rights itself. As a nation, we’ve overcome slavery, overcome institutionalized racism, overcome extermination of Native Americans and then of their languages, overcome prejudice against Jews, prejudice against Catholics, and prejudice against Mormons. Some day we’re going to get past the band of sociopaths who are currently running our government, we’re going to get past their reprehensible and un-American anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican prejudices, and we’re going to become a moral and exceptional country again.
So, if you’re an American: someday your kids and your grand-kids are going to have questions. We’re not French, and we do ask about family. Your grand-kids are going to want to know what Grandma and Grandpa did during the Trump administration. Did you speak up? Did you collaborate? Did you just try to get along and let the refugees, the religious and racial minorities, and the people losing their health insurance worry about themselves? We’re not French–we do ask. Your grand-kids will. They’ll ask you.
to be in a world of shit: to be in a very bad situation. There are a number of shit-related expressions for describing the state of being in a bad situation–to be in deep shit, to be up shit creek without a paddle, and I imagine others that slip my mind at the moment. How it was used in the post: America is in a world of shit right now.
la Résistance intérieure: the Resistance within France. What we would call in English “the Resistance.”
la Résistance extérieure: the Free French forces operating out of London.
clandestin: clandestine, underground, secret.
la presse clandestine: the underground press. Putting out newspapers was a big move during the Nazi occupation–Germany took the press so seriously that in Germany the Nazi government killed intellectuals and writers who published underground anti-government writings. It was a difficult one, too–it was illegal to sell paper, ink, or stencils.