I have so many misgivings about talking about the French or the French language, because I was so embarrassingly obsessed with the culture as a young woman, while so many French were uncharitable toward Asians save when it benefitted their racist dogmas about cultural homogeneity. It either did or did not help that I never lived in Paris or Marseille—most expats have beautiful stories of intellectual romances in the major cities, but my memories all carry the grey torpor of a What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or Boys Don’t Cry midwest.
That said, two things are absolute: (1) the friends I made there will remain important to me for life. I know that’s something we all feel like saying in the trenches, and possibly an apologia for such sentimental vascillation but to add color: I don’t feel this way about most childhood friends. Ask them and they’ll confirm. (2) Pouvoir is an oracle.
I started my journey into Francophilia with the word pouvoir, in high school. Mister Kirkeby taught us that it means “to be able to” but also “the ability” and then finally, that in negation, it represents obligation. I realized through this lesson that the power of “can” is shared in English. Here are some sample phrases to crystalize what I mean when I say pouvoir is an oracle:
I can bench press 150 pounds but I can’t touch my toes.
You have the ability to make change in this world. You can change this world.
I cannot stop taking my medicine or I will die.
You can’t wear white after labor day/at an American funeral/unless you’re the bride.
I can’t stop thinking about you. I can’t. I can’t stop thinking about you.