Day 27: Langues des Signes Français

Wow, Day 27.  Can you believe we’ve been in France for almost a month?  I am famous in my own mind for having bizarre cravings when out of country, and France is no different.  I want some freaking Taco Bell.  Don’t get me wrong, fried okra or grits or sausage gravy and biscuits would be amazing, too, but man, I keep wanting Taco Bell at the weirdest times.  (When I was in Kenya, FYI, it was Waffle House.)

So I promised I would eventually tell you the story of my second meeting with Metz CouchSurfers and now is a good time.  One of the girls on the local list, Élise, suggested a bar called La Chaouée.  And it’s…

Well, it’s a world unto itself.  Élise called it a bar, and the management said that it was a “club” and required a membership in order to buy drinks, but quite honestly, the best description of it is a tiny modern gentlemen’s club.  (Not the strip club kind.  The kind you read about in Sherlock Holmes.)

There aren’t any private rooms available to club members, but for such a tiny property, there are lots of alcoves and tables for various sized groups.  One wall has a window in it that used to look onto the street but now looks onto the beer storage room, so someone put up a black cloth behind the glass and stuffed the alcove full of stuffed animals.  A third of the available vertical space is devoted to a lending library for club members (you may only borrow three books at a time!).  Two large bookcases hold an extensive library of board games.  Down a narrow spiral staircase, there is a small music venue set in a whitewashed wine cellar-cum-catacomb.

I’m pretty sure the only reason they don’t serve food to anyone but the benevolat (volunteers) and the musical act of the day is that no one would ever leave if they could get food there too.  (This isn’t entirely true: the other reason is that the tiny kitchen in the staff area is a converted bathroom.  Someone put a large butcher block on top of the bathtub and built a kitchen from there.)

Last week, Élise and Réne, another CouchSurfer, met us at La Chaouée.  Because Élise is a regular, all of the volunteers know her, and we ended up playing “Dobble,” (called Spot It!) in English, that works really well for groups who don’t all speak the same language.  It involves finding pictures on certain cards and calling out the name of the pictures.  This means that six other people were reinforcing the word for “tree” or “tear drop” at an excited shout, over and over again, and no one minded what language you used or if you just pointed and shouted “C’est!”

When I discovered that La Chaouée is run by volunteers, I immediately asked if I could sign up.  (Umm, duhhhhhh.  Awesome venue, friendly people who all know each other, chance to have something to do and learn French.  No brainer.)

Tonight I went back in the hopes of getting an overview of what kind of volunteering I’d be doing (working the bar) and whatever other orientation I needed.  I also went because La Chaouée was hosting a cultural event about LSF, French Sign Language.

American Sign Language, or ASL, which I know a little bit of, is similar enough to LSF that when I signed with people there, I kept getting corrected on my ASL signs, because they look like slightly wrong LSF.  Which is problematic when you’re trying to explain for someone who reads lips in the wrong language.  (I quickly learned the sign for “Anglais,” though, which smoothed things over a bit.)

Funniest moment of the night was explaining to an LSF interpreter, who also spoke English, why I was in Metz.  I finger-spelled M-E-T-Z, and the interpreter and another nearby signer recoiled and said “NON!” very loudly.  “No this!” the interpreter said, fingerspelling T the way I had.  “It means…a sex thing.”  Oops.  I explained that it was the letter T in ASL, which the two women thought was hilarious, and switched to signing T with the very awkward LSF sign for the rest of the night.

Élise and Réne showed up again (separately, with individual friends), so I spent a very pleasant three or four hours.  By about half-way through, though, I had a horrible headache—being on that beginner-intermediate edge of understanding a language more fluidly is hard enough on your brain.  Two at once is sheer masochism.  I resorted to putting on the dorky earphones that were available for the hearing people to simulate the deaf experience (or at least to keep them from cheating and trying to get auditory cues when they were getting their two hour immersion in LSF).  Blissful quiet.

The group of Deaf people that were there were all amazing about playing charades with hearing people until they learned a basic sign—making a pretend nametag and then making the sign for “name,” spelling their own names very slowly and then making the sign for name and then pointing at the hearing person to ask for his or her name.

There was even a “debate”—a question and answer session for the hearing people to ask the Deaf people things that they were curious about.  I did not understand a word of it, en français or en LSF, but that was fine.  I understood at least a couple of questions, which were things like “How do you watch movies?  Do you like movies?” and “What is music like for you?” and “Would you ever try to dance?”

The answer, oh hearing people who are reading this, is that there are as many answers to these questions as there are Deaf people.  What would you say if someone came up to you and asked, “Do hearing people like movies?”  Which isn’t to say you can’t ask a Deaf person something you’re curious about, just ask that person, and not all of Deaf culture through the oracle that is [really, really not] that person.

The Deaf people argued with each other: I don’t usually hang out with a lot of Deaf people at once, so I had never seen that many Deaf people interrupting each other or deliberately ignoring “my turn now?” turn-taking markers.  The lovely, lovely ‘terp synthesized the arguing into an answer, or interpreted each person’s answer in turn.  The Deaf man who was the “main event” answerer of questions also said “pour moi” and the French phrase for “for example” A LOT, which helped me feel better about the debate.

As an aside:

Dear Jen,

I’m so sorry, but when my new French friends asked me about rude signs, I, um, showed them some.  They were (naturally) quite taken with the ruder sign for sex.  At least I also taught them to order drinks in LSF at the bar?  Sigh.



When the crowd finally cleared, one of the staff members showed me around and introduced me to a couple more of the benevolat team.  Élise invited me to a party at her house tomorrow night (“just red wine and chips, not a very good party” she said), which I regretfully declined because Tom and I are taking a long weekend in Luxembourg.  Réne drove me home, and now here I am.  Saying hi to all of you and sending very much love.  🙂

P.S. Jen and Wes, I miss you extra today.