My PhD training made me an ethnographer, so the way a people’s culture has been formed in relation to its terroir, climate and habitat is always uppermost in my encounters when travelling. Ethnography describes how social groups make meaning from their knowledge of the environment and the cultural artefacts they create. Like anthropologists, we examine what people make and do; in French this is just one verb, faire. And French has given us a whole host of anthropologists and ethnographers, including Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). But two contemporary academics have developed approaches that are exciting for the tourism researcher today, especially in my specialised field of tourist autoethnography, these two are Americans: Kathy Charmaz, in grounded theory, and Catherine Kohler Riessman for her work on narrative analysis.
Narrative analysis is such a powerful tool that once you have used it professionally for a few years you begin to apply it as a reflex, even when reading textbooks. Take the huge tome, Advanced French Grammar by Monique L’Huillier for example. Little by little, through close-reading, the preoccupations and meanings from her life begin to drop clues. They are like a trail of breadcrumbs in the otherwise very formal description of the French language. The first clue comes early in the explanation of determiners, words like the, an, all, three, when we meet her real life for the first time: all my cats, which, is given in French, tous mes chats. In fact, cats are mentioned 67 times throughout Advanced French Grammar, and late in the book we learn that ‘My cat and the neighbour’s are constantly fighting’ (L’Huillier 1999 , 266). Humans seek narrative to give meaning, so it may be something you have already done with schoolbooks that were not intended as story-books. I remember how my first French schoolbook Point de Départ by Herbert F Collins from the 1960s made me think that France would be colour-washed in lime green if I ever visited the country. There were no photographs, just line sketches. Washed in green, it was perpetually spring-time in French towns. At school though, we never really thought France was a real place. We studied French, like Latin, as a textbook language and never imagined whole nations using French for business, politics, culture and romance.
Speaking of learning French, let’s end this post with a little more textbook language. Remember that coffee-coloured item of clothing? The tense of the verb we used was the imperfect third person, elle portait from porter, to carry or to wear. The imperfect tense gives readers ongoing background information as the setting for stories. Used along with the perfect tense nearby it creates narrative that satisfies our desire for plot. Or, rather, our demand, to use Jacques Lacan’s (1901-1981) term, since he thought, demand is never satisfied by the symbolic.
Elle portait une jupe café.
Can be translated as either, she used to wear a skirt the colour of coffee. Or, she was wearing a coffee-coloured skirt. But when we add a second clause using the perfect tense, the story is fixed as an undeniable fact, like this:
En fait, quand je l’ai rencontrée pour la première fois, elle portait une jupe café.
In fact, when I met her for the first time, she was wearing a coffee-coloured skirt.
The pronunciation point for today is in the word fois, time, an instance. This time, cette fois, the [IPA] is reassuringly easy to read /fwa/ and makes it clear to see how the -oi- of fois is said out loud starting with the sound that w makes in English. Remember that /wa/ when ordering a bottle of Badoit mineral water.