Sunday, March 25, 2012


I am lucky to be affiliated with a college whose Dean sends weekly words of wisdom to our students. Of course he’s too modest to call them that. Instead, he refers to them as “Notes.” This week’s message hit home for me, as they often do, since he and I are usually on the same wave length. We come from the “old school” that views teaching not as a business, but as a sacred calling. As parents, we understand what it means to send your child off to college. In a leap of faith, you entrust them to people you hope will care about them the way you do. Our Dean is such a person. Even 65-year-old profs like me benefit from having a Dean in their corner. This week’s Notes hit a chord that prompted me to write back. This type of synergy can be a great comfort to us students of every age.


“I see the moon, almost full, rising, framed by the window casing, and surprisingly exotic. Looking at her reminds me of ways of being that are so much older than our own, so much older than our ways of the daily worrying we so persistently repeat to make those circles on our carpets.

This moon in the window is both a return of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The French have a word, depaysement, which can be translated, as one writer says, into ‘the feeling of not being assaulted by the familiarity of things.’  I feel no assault, but I do sense that, were I with my passport in some strange land, the view would not seem strange, too.  I stand and look out my window for a while, the moon so bright in the clear winter night, trying simply to get some notion of why such a familiar sight, so sensibly framed, seems outside the country of my ordinary sense of things. Perhaps my surprise at seeing the moon is some new sense of the old.  I am puzzled because I have of course seen that moon before, even this very almost-full one in a clear winter night.

The translator goes on to say that depaysement is a ‘change in surroundings where there is no immediate point of reference.’ Perhaps that is what makes me pause and stare. Perhaps I seek a point of reference that is not imagined, as the moon seems fantastical, but is as real as I am, standing with a cup of tea. You may also experience that slight sense of the strangeness of seeing the familiar at a place called ‘here’ and a time called ‘now.’  That we have seen something before does not mean we know it. That we know it does not mean we have seen it.  If we attend during our travels, in our familiar grounds or even in some exotic place, the strange as well as the familiar are here and now.

I stand, as you may stand at your turn, wondering about a point of reference. Am I that point, and if I am, is it the same point as yesterday or the last time thought I knew or saw something I thought to be familiar or strange?  Outside, looking at the same moon, the frame differs: some city skyline and rooftops.  As I stand I realize my point is not something new about the moon or about frames; the point is something new about me.  Outside, for an instant, I see with no immediate point of reference or frame.  For an instant I see with only a passport for every place and no passport for any particular one, both.  For an instant I remember and feel like the definition of a word in Arabic that a student told me:  to arrive suddenly in a new country without luggage.  And I do not know what all this means, even as I write it.”


Thank you for sending this. "Dépaysement" has always been one of what I like to call the key words, "mots clés," in every class I teach. It is one of those words that defy translation, but what you wrote here makes a good stab at it. 

The verb form of the word, "se dépayser" is what I strive to have my students experience in our French class. I want them to set aside their identity of origin and to take them "out of their element" to create for themselves a new, French identity and mindset. 

This will require them to "se débrouiller," another untranslatable key word that is etymologically related to the word "fog." To be able to "defog" oneself, regardless of the situation and irrespective of how "depaysé" one may feel, and to do so with savoir-faire is an art. Therefore, to be called "debrouillard(e)" is a high compliment. 

You allude to another of my "key words" which is also quite untranslatable:un point de repère, which can perhaps be called a "point of reference"--those things that allow us to keep our bearings in the face of whatever curve balls come our way. It is actually related to the compass, which always points true north.

Another "key word" in my classes is the elusively evocative "se marquer." It is related to man's first efforts to write, which involved incising symbols onto a tabula rasa. Throughout history there have been many less positive associations with the act of "marking" others (slaves, criminals, Holocaust victims), but I aim to mark my students with a lifelong passion for French.

Thank you for this impetus to crystallize in English the essence of what I do in my French classes.--gratefully, d

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