Monday, 29 February 2016

Saved by Stickers

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a whiny existential post, so before spring is upon us and sailing preparations get seriously underway and obliterate the dead time in which existential crises breed, here it is.  This winter’s crisis began with what should have been a joyful occasion: buying a new laptop computer.  The photo theme accompanying this crisis is “pathways.”

Volubilis, Morocco.
The problem is a simple one.  French keyboards are not the same as English (or American) keyboards.  Of course the French slip in some funny characters (é à ô á è ç) but even the normal letters don’t have the same placement.  A French keyboard is called an AZERTY keyboard because those are the 6 letters on the top left hand of the keyboard, whereas English / American keyboards are QWERTYs.  You can special order a QWERTY keyboard laptop from France, but it costs about $200 more.     

Biking trail along the canals, France.
Patrick offered what he thought was a simple suggestion: just get used to an AZERTY keyboard.  It made sense.  In a few short years I will have spent more than half my life in France  anyway.  Maybe it’s time to let go.  But when I actually thought of re-learning to type, I broke down in tears.  For short emails or facebook posts, I sometimes use Patrick’s French computer to peck out a message, but for someone who used to touch-type 60 words per minute, it’s a real setback.  It’s not the process of learning to type again that frustrates and depresses me, it’s the loss of one of the last links I have to my mother tongue. 

Dades Gorge, Morocco.
Except for skyping with my parents and a few friends a couple times per week, my only English interaction is reading and writing (and I read about 1/3rd of the time in French already).  If writing now has to be done through a French veil, I’ll lose a small part of what’s left.  I’m fluent in French (although that doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes) but even if I live here for the rest of my life and even if I speak French 99% of the time, it will always be a second language. Maybe others manage, but I can’t always express myself the way I want in French, or at least not as well as I would in English.  The searching for words, the hesitancy, the “foreignness” of it all is like watching a film in black and white instead of in colour, or like cooking with only salt and pepper instead of a spice-rack full of options.

Hiking trail, Guadeloupe.
My first French teacher was a French woman living in Woods Hold Massachusetts where her husband worked at the Oceanographic Institution where I was a graduate student. We would meet for lessons in her beautiful home, working at the sunny kitchen table overlooking her “French” country garden.  One day, she held my hand in hers and told me that if I made my life in France, I would never feel truly at home anywhere in the World ever again. She knew what she was talking about. With the passing years, the foreign becomes familiar and home becomes a stranger.      

After wrestling with all these demons for a couple of days, I told Patrick that I absolutely could not accept an AZERTY keyboard.  I would make do with my  7-year old Sony VAIO running Vista Business until it just wasn’t possible anymore.  He was frustrated and I felt like a pouty child throwing a tantrum, but I’m just not able to let go of this small part of my culture just yet.

Colza field, France.
And then I turned to the internet to tap into the hive-mind of Anglo-Saxon expats in France to find out if others had gone over to the dark side (okay, we’ll call it “the other side”) and how they managed. 

Tizi n Test pass, Morocco.
Stickers.  Stickers was the answer.  Any recent computer can change its keyboard input to any other language. The only problem is that you have to know the keyboard by heart because, while the computer can speak numerous languages, it can’t do anything about the letters physically printed on the keyboard.  Several companies make stickers that you can use to convert your keyboard to a QWERTY.  The fancy ones are even transparent so that you can see the original keyboard markings as well as the QWERTY ones in a different colour.

Desert road, Morocco.
This solution, besides being simple and elegant, has many parallels with my life in France. My language is now a sometimes-confusing sometimes-frustrating mix of French and English. Yes, I do need to more fully embrace my adopted homeland and its crazy language, but I have so little to cling to that is still my own that giving up even a small part of my mother tongue just isn’t possible for me right now. 

So like dogs and their masters, my keyboard and I are destined to look like each other, both a mad Frenglish melange, neither fully French nor fully English and never really at home anywhere.


Yia Yia Thompson said...

Phenomenal!! I do believe your French friend/teacher still reverts to French instead of always speaking English - and sometimes she can't remember the right word in either language. I also remember being in Paris that first time and staying both with you and with her - and trying to use her French keyboard. There were enough "alike" character positions to make it more difficult, I swear, than using a whole 'nother keyboard. Say Russian or something.
Thanks, as always, for this. And the pictures are just wonderful! (I do wish the print on this window wasn't quite so minuscule, however . ..)

Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor said...

I don't think I could ever learn another keyboard - way too late in life for those kind of leaps into the unknown. I love the idea of the stickers!

Sailing Mareda said...

Thanks Yia Yia. On the positive side, Claudine would always say (with that adorable twinkle in her eye) "but I LIKE being the foreigner. It makes me special without having to do anything!" I've got to get a new template for the blog that will modify itself ("responsive")to suit whatever device is being used so I'll make sure to have big pictures and bigger print everywhere !

Sailing Mareda said...

@Ellen: way too late in life, here, too ! I thought learning a new keyboard might be like one of those memory exercises that is supposed to be good for you as you age, but with further reflection, it just struck me as an unnecessary pain in the ass.

Astrolabe Sailing said...

I'm with you. That would drive me crazzzzy!!

popsi kopper said...

For me it works best to just ignore the markings on the keys. As a touch-typist it'll give you another incentive not to look at the keyboard. And once you don't look, it really doesn't matter what printed on the key you press to get a W.

This works great for the common characters, the exotics like & or \ can take some time to get used to.

Under windows I found it also helpful to use the US-International version with dead-keys. That way, I get all the strange diacritical keys by multi-key sequences, eg: Press ` and e to get è. Same for ' and C for Ç.

Sailing Mareda said...

Thanks Popsi - you're always full of great advice ! (by the way, I bought a great camera (not DSLR !) based on your earlier comments...will reveal later when I get some good photos). I thought about just coping with touch-typing, but I know from experience on Patrick's computer that passwords (where I usually have symbols and numbers) are a real nightmare. I'm waiting to get the computer (in 1 hour !) to see the placement of the letters before buying the stickers to make sure they don't cover up the originals and I have a choice between US international and English / UK. Thanks again for the great comments ! said...

This post caught my attention on your page and I was mesmerized! You have nailed a piece of anxiety for me about traveling, and that is being able to communicate with people who do not speak my language. You are so lucky that you were able to study French and have become fluent. I completely understand the hesitation to give up something as personal and familiar as the keyboard and how that represents such an internalized part of yourself and your connections to your home language. Language is so much a part of our comfort zone. Nothing wrong about that. I'm glad you found a solution.