The Madonna Complex

Learning French, Living Abroad

“Ooooh la la, man,” my friend proclaims loudly at the bar.

I am with an expat friend from Central Europe and complaining about a horrific exchange I had with the administrator at a French language school

“Mais oauis,” I respond. “It is totally ridiculous. I mean, n’importe quoi!”

“Defo,” she says, raising her glass. “Na zdravi!”

“Cheers,” I respond, before turning towards MB and saying, “Santé!”

He smiles back, clinking glasses, “Chin,” he says.

In less than two minutes of conversation, we have managed to cover four different cultures and none of us even noticed…

This type of situation is the just the beginning of language confusion for me. Even within English, things can get complicated. I remember returning to USA and visiting friends after 3 years of living “down under.” I hadn’t realized that anything had changed but clearly, I was the only one.

“Give me a break,” one of my friends had said, laughing.

“What,” I was totally confused.

“Oh come on, “Madonna,’” she had continued (Madonna the pop-star, not Jesus’ Mum). “I know you are putting it on – “sweet as” and “suss it out,” what are these phrases you are using, and that accent is ridiculous. We get it, you have been overseas, no need for the theatricals.”

She then exchanged knowing, humorous looks with our other friends.

I stared, outraged. Now, I may be an enormous nerd (eh…”may”…”am”…semantics) but I draw the line at being accused of trying to subtlety create an accent in order to sound cool – I mean, let’s get serious, if I were going to do that, there is no way I would pull off subtlety OR coolness, they are not qualities that I would consider to be my forte. However, there I was, being called a Madonna-esque accent faker! I reacted as any normal person would: I bristled, then drank heavily, started a stupid fight, and went home feeling confused, stupid, and embarrassed.

“I’m not Madonna,” I told myself. “She’s a weird poser, I’m not like that, my accent just changed a bit because I’ve been living overseas…wait, what…oh man…dang it.”

That is the moment when I realized that, even though Madonna behaves absolutely bizarrely in so many ways, maybe we need to lay off her a bit on the accent thing…it may not be in her control, her brain has probably just thrown in the towel (I feel like there is a joke here but I’m going to leave it alone out of respect for the Immaculate Collection).

Language can undergo some weird transformations when you are constantly around different accents or tongues. Here are a few examples:

  1. You start using the vernacular of others around you, such as my Central European friend creating the phrase “oooh la la, man,” a combination of French and American, or my usage of “n’importe quoi” instead of “whatever.” Are these expressions that exist in our languages? Not even close, but after hearing certain words often, they sneak in and set up house in your brain…like little word parasites. Mwahahahahahaha! Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?
  2. Your cadence of speech can also change, something that is so embarrassing for me. For example, I am physically incapable of talking to an Irish person without starting to sing-song every sentence, like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun. It is horrifying and just as cringe-worthy as it sounds.
  3. Your sentence structure can take a beating as well.   After living in France for 3 years, instead of saying things like “are you going to the store,” I say, “you are going to the store, yes?” And MB, is often asked by other French people where he is from because while his accent is obviously French, he structures his sentences like an English speaker (incidentally, he loves this and has no fear of the Madonna complex, instead he looks sneakily happy and smug any time someone asks him).

Basically, the point is that your language, inside of your head, controlled by your brain, spoken by your mouth can go completely rogue without you even realizing it.

Cue screams of terror. A woman covers a child protectively while a young girl raises her hands to her cheeks and shrieks.

“We thought we understood,” the narrator says. “We thought it was all under our control but now…now…”

There are scenes of panic as people push each other down trying to run away.

IT has a mind of its own, nothing we say, nothing we do can keep it in check, it just keeps evolving and changing…like some sick, twisted MUTANT!”

Cue more screams, blah blah blah.

Mutant language on the move!

Now that I am living in a completely different linguistic environment, a whole new layer of weird has developed. Instead of carefully cataloguing and categorizing languages like it did when I was in school, my brain seemingly throws them all into a big box and lets me pick whatever I want. Forget worrying about funny little vernacular differences, now I have to battle it out in my head just to try to arrive at a word in the correct tongue. For instance, last time I was in Italy, Spanish kept coming out of my mouth; and in Munich a few months back, I kept saying things in French (as though my brain were thinking, “oh it is foreign, French is foreign, poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to). There have even been instances in which I have gotten confused with English, like when an American friend was visiting and I kept giving her the translations she was asking for back in French…huh? It didn’t even register to me that I wasn’t speaking to her in English until she told me.

Basically, once I left US soil, my brain decided that it can’t be bothered delineating between different Anglo accents or phrasery (yes, I made up that word, you don’t like it, blame my brain) or which foreign languages belong in what places, it has just gotten utterly lazy.

My Brain: *yawn* I can’t be responsible for keeping all of this straight, it’s just too much. I mean, I’m already spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out all the different Game of Thrones plotlines.

ME: But how am I supposed to know what to say?

My Brain: OH my god, you are so high maintenance. Just pick something, I’m sure everyone will figure it out. Here, I’ve put everything into this closet in your frontal lobe, voila!

ME: But it isn’t even organized, how will I ever find anything?

My Brain:Not my problem.

ME: What? Yes, it is. That is basically your entire job.

My Brain: Meh. Now, explain to me again which ones are Baratheons?

*Sigh*

So there it is, I suppose I am stuck with having the “Madonna Complex”…or maybe just “The Chandler.”

 

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Fake it to Make it

Adjusting to France, Learning French

I’m standing in the middle of my gynecologist’s office as she moves a chair to put it against the door.  I’m not quite sure who we are barricading it against but I’m glad to know that if the killer from one of the “Scream” movies decides to show up during my exam that we are all good.

“No one will come in – okay?”  She says this to me smiling.

“Great,” I reply…because um…what other response is there?  Are there women who like to share the Pap smear experience?

She says something else to me quickly in French and then turns to the “tools of discomfort” to prepare.

I began to undress, assuming that is what she told me to do, as she piddles around the room.  I feel a bit awkward just getting naked in the middle of a room but “hey” this ain’t my first rodeo; I am familiar with the gyno exams in France.  I plop my buck-naked* self down on the paper-covered bench and wait for her to turn around and begin the exam.

I chuckle a bit, thinking to myself how it still amuses me to be naked and hanging out with a stranger when suddenly another, chilling thought crosses my mind…

“Shit…I hope that I’m supposed to be naked right now.”

***

To fully explain all of this, I think I better go back to the very beginning.

When I first got to France I was willing to try everything on my own.  You need me to talk to the plumber?  Of course I can handle that.  I want to organize my French lessons with the University?  Dude…I got this.  Anything that came my way I was willing to go for, being the independent person I was.  I mean, hey, I had already moved to two different countries – I was used to figuring out new places; I even found it fun.  When you know almost nothing of the language then you don’t really have too much to lose (read: if people are making fun of you there is no way that you will understand it so you can’t possibly care).

Slowly, however, things started to change.  I started having problems – as my French improved and I understood more in some weird way I almost started understanding less.  I remember standing at the counter paying for a facial for 20 minutes while they tried to explain to me that I was supposed to take a device home and then return in two weeks for a follow up.  I looked at them, my sheepish smile plastered to my face, so unsure about what to do.  It seemed clear that I was meant to take the small device with me but if that was not what they were saying, how weird and awkward and (OMG) embarrassing would it be if I tried to walk out with it?  I was trapped, crippled by the desire to appear competent even though I was so obviously not.

“Prenez,” the lady said to me clearly.

“Tu prends,” said the young girl who had been staring into the abyss of my pores just moments earlier.

“Vous comprenez,” the lady asks me again if I understand.

I give a laugh and shake my head “no” because there is no international sign for “actually I think I get it but I’m not sure and don’t want to look like an ass.”  A man, seated behind me begins to speak with the lady and the young girl and I am stuck standing there as they have a 5 minute conversation of how to explain to me what to do.

I wanted to run out the door, escape entirely, this is not a challenge that I wanted to address.  I hadn’t learned the verb “prendre” yet and it wasn’t just going to magically make sense to me.  I knew in that moment that the situation was hopeless, yet manners forced me to stay there, humiliation raining down upon me.

Finally, the lady smiled at me and shrugged, the young girl rolled her eyes in irritation, snatched the device and walked to the back, and I paid and left.

I remember trying not to cry on the way home and I’m certain when MB arrived back from work that evening he was greeted with wails of “I hate it here, why did you make me come here, this is horrible!”

I felt so stupid and so embarrassed.

From this point on, things began to change.  I stopped going to do things on my own.  If someone needed to come by the apartment to work on something I made sure that MB was either there or available by phone.  When I wanted to make an appointment for my facials I would go in person instead of calling so that I could avoid any awkward phone conversation.  I had lost my gumption.

Scarlett O’Hara would have been so annoyed with me.

It took a while after that incident for me to own up to a few infallible truths:

  1. I ABHOR being embarrassed.
  2. Life is embarrassing.  (perhaps even more so when you are learning something new)
  3. Being embarrassed is funny if you are willing to laugh.

I mean, at the end of the day, what is more embarrassing anyway?  Having your husband translate the phrase, “please put your feet in the stirrups now” or premature nakedness because you pretended that you understood what was told to you?

***

My heart is beating in my chest as my gynecologist begins to turn around.  “Please let me be supposed to be naked, please let me be supposed to be naked!”

“Okay,” she says, snapping the rubber on her glove.  “We do theez now?”

Nailed it,” I think smugly.

***

Totally supposed to be naked.”

 

* For those of you not from familiar with the term “Buck Naked” (“naked” should be pronounced “nekkid”).  Please read this one because the example is just perfection:  http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/buck+naked  And is this isn’t enough for you there is a complete background on the term here:  http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20001005

The TV3 Interview…

Adjusting to France, Bread is Pain on TV!, Learning French

Okay, so I am being a slacker this week and instead of writing a post I am just going to post the link to the TV3 Interview that featured BreadisPain last November.  Please enjoy my television awkwardness and inability to pronounce “par” correctly (seriously, every time I hear it I cringe).

Now, that being said this was a really fun and cool experience to have and I hope it will give you a laugh!

I’ll be back next week with a legit post…but until then, enjoy the long weekend darlings!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6P3JDgJwzXQ&noredirect=1

Who’s on French?

Learning French

My brain at times has a devious nature (exhibit a: https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/the-beau-reve/).  It is not particularly cooperative…never wanting to remember the names of movies I like and always forgetting exact statistics. Not to mention the fact that my Brain is constantly enlisting the help of its comrades: Conscious, Subconscious, and Speech Filter…among others, to mess with me and leave me feeling utterly confused or embarrassed (especially when Speech Filter comes into play, I basically think that my Brain has given Speech Filter early retirement and that Speech Filter spends its days relaxing on the beach with a margarita while I perpetually say dumb, ill-timed, and inappropriate things…but I digress).

Lately, my brain has developed a new and nefarious form of torture.

Yesterday, I was at the pharmacy with MB picking up a prescription.  While the pharmacist was typing information into the computer I turned to MB and had a conversation in English before asking her a question in French.  She responded to me in English (obviously she had heard me talking) and I responded to her in French.

“Quoi?”  She said this while laughing.  “I was trying to speak my English but you speak back in French!”

“Huh,” was the dignified response that I mustered (thanks again Speech Filter).

MB quickly jumped in and explained to the pharmacist that I have a lot of conversations like that because I want to practice my French and the French people often want to practice their English, blah blah blah.  On the way out of the pharmacy I asked him what the whole thing was just about.

“I don’t get it,” I said to him.

“She just thought it was funny that she was speaking English and you were speaking French.”

“She was speaking English,” I asked him, confused.

“Uh…oauis.”  MB looked mildly concerned at this point.

I just continued walking scratching my head like a confused character in a Charlie Chaplin film.  I hadn’t realized that she was speaking in English.

Yeah, so that’s right, my brain has now decided to not always acknowledge the differences in language, meaning that people can switch back and forth and I don’t always catch on immediately which in the end leaves me more confused than ever.  Thanks a lot, Brain.

BRAIN: Oh please, I mean, like it matters, it’s all up here in the same place anyway.  Did you understand what was going on or not?  HUH?!  HUH?!

I tacitly state that I did, in fact, understand.

BRAIN: Right then…get over it.  Gawd…I try to make things a little bit interesting, vary some thought process and BAM…rejected.  You know, it is very high maintenance being your brain!

This whole thing started a few weeks back when a friend of mine was visiting us from the U.S.  During her trip we spent a few days with MB’s family and so there was a lot of French being spoken.  My friend doesn’t speak French so I did my best to translate back and forth what I could (I would love to see the transcripts on that tragedy).  This seemed to work okay for a little while but eventually I got confused and sometimes I would give her the French version and give his family the English version.  Uh…wait, am I talking to…who?  Who’s on First.

Basically my Brain has decided that it will be hilarious for me to be constantly scrambling to concentrate on what language is being spoken instead of automatically recognizing it…you know, like normal people.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to pull a Madonna (“I swear I can’t help my English accent) but it does get confusing up there in my head.  Basically my Brain is Abbott and I’m Costello.

ME: What do you call French?

BRAIN: Yes

ME: What?

BRAIN: Yes.

ME: What?

BRAIN: I said yes already. GEEZ.

ME: *SIGH* Okay, what do you call English?

BRAIN: What? Of course not, What is how I call French.

ME: I don’t know how you call French!

BRAIN: I don’t know’s how you call English.

ME: What?

BRAIN: Seriously?  This is exhausting.  What is how you call French.

ME: AGH! I don’t know!

BRAIN: I don’t know’s how you call English!!

ME: I don’t know how you call English!

BRAIN: Exactly!

SCENE*

So next time you run into me don’t be alarmed if I start spouting off to you in a different language; I haven’t gone crazy, it’s just my Brain having a laugh.

*For those sad people out there who have never seen this skit…pure comedy genius: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sShMA85pv8M  Also, here is the script: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/humor4.shtml

Chatty Chats

Adjusting to France, Learning French

Found: French dog*.

I am sitting on the metro, ready for my thirty minute ride on the way home from French class (ugh).  I always sit in the same seat on the second level with no neighbors**; I like to zone out on the tram and frankly I just don’t like being smushed up next questionable strangers, there, I said it.  About fifteen minutes into my ride an elderly gentleman sits down at the one-seater across from me.

He is all smiles and I can feel his eyes boring into me.  Keep looking out the window!  Don’t make eye contact!  I have the same feeling I have when I have just sat on the airplane with a book and I see an overly happy person walking towards the empty seat next to me.  My Southerness (https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/have-a-bless-ed-day-and-others-things-dogs-say/) won’t allow me to ignore a potential conversation so I must concentrate hard on something else if I’m going to avoid talking.

The tram starts up again and I continue to ponder the window pane in fascination.  Then I slip and look at the time on my IPod.

He jumps, nay leaps, at the opportunity and immediately tells me my IPod looks like a wrist watch because of the case I have it in (that’s right, I still use my arm band workout case even when I’m not working out – what if I get the sudden urge to workout, one must always be prepared).  I smile nicely and laugh “tehehehehehehe”, yes, yes we are all polite, now I am going to go back to staring out the window because there are a lot of tram stops left and while I would normally embrace stranger conversations, I have just left four hours of French class and my head is swimming; there is no way I can sustain a chat in French right now.

A minute or so passes.

“Vous etes etranger?”  He is smiling at me expectantly.

Le sigh.  I surrender and take off my IPod completely.

“Oui, je suis Americaine,” I smile back encouraging him (damn you upbringing!).

“Ah!  Americaine!  Tres bien!”

He continues on, chatting amicably.  I tell him that I am learning French but am not very good, he tells me (in English) that he knows some English but is not very good.  We chat a bit about French class and the difficulties of learning other languages.  Finally he stands up to get off at his stop.

“Eet eez verwy nice to mit yew,” He says patting my hand as he descends.

“Enchante,” I say.  “Bonne journee, monsieur!”

“Arrivaderchi,” he laughs.  “Italian!”  He is so pleased with himself.

“Ciao,” I respond playing along.

He laughs again, “ciao ciao!”

Then he is gone, as the tram pulls out I get a last glimpse of him merrily running across the tram tracks to cross the street.  Spritely old fellow.

As my tram ride continues it occurs to me that I have just met a French dog.  I think back over the past month or so and realize that lately I have been meeting a lot of French dogs.  What has caused this change?  Has France read my blog and decide to be chattier?  Somehow I doubt it.  Instead, I think that it is because, due to my French class, I am now on the same schedule as the old-timers and old-timers don’t have the social hang ups of young people; if they want to chat, they are going to chat.  Maybe they aren’t dogs, but rather they are chatty “chats”!  (I slay me)

It reminds me of when I used to work reception at a government office and people would call to complain about various things; often after the complaint was made the old-timers would just want to talk and have a conversation.  Getting older can’t be easy; the world that you knew for most of your life is gone, society changes, rules change, people you know pass out of your life.  So whether you are a Cat or a Dog, don’t shut down when you run into a smiling elderly person on the tram or at the grocery store, give them a chat, a moment of your time; if you are lucky, someone will return the favor to you one day.

* Point of reference: https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/the-truth-about-cats-and-dogs/

**That’s right; I’m that guy, the person who has my favorite tram seat.  Maybe when I am an old-timer instead of being nice and friendly I will freak out and rap my cane against the arm rest if someone else sits in it. 

The Old Woman without a Clue

French Food, Learning French

I’ve been taking yet another French Intensif Course, this time at the University, and until today it has been an exercise in humiliation.  Everyone in the class is about 12 years old 20 years old and have been studying French for anywhere from 2 to 8 semesters.  They can reel off subjunctives and infinitives like it’s nothing.  When we had a session in which we described Fairy Tales, they were flawlessly reciting the plots to the Lion King*, Cinderella, and Pinnochio…and then there was me, the old lady without a clue (har har).  I could get the words out but not the correct grammar.

It’s been like this almost every day of class.  They run circles around me with their freshly reviewed grammatical wisdom and I just sit there jaw-open still trying to translate the sentence that I am supposed to be deconstructing.  I can feel their pity.  I can feel the shiver that runs down their spine as they think “god after a year and a half shouldn’t she be better than this?”  Wait, is that their thoughts or my internal dialogue?

It makes me want to challenge them all to a Dewey Decimal System duel – who’s the smart one now, suckas? (Hmmm…yeah, probably still the people that are familiar with today’s cataloging system…damn’t).

However, this morning I had an epiphany; I realized that while I may struggle with grammar, both domestic and foreign (much to my grammar-teaching Mother’s chagrin), I’ve got practical knowledge.  Today the teacher asked questions about France…the regions, the cuisines, the restaurants in town…FINALLY, I had some answers.  When it comes to talking about food or travel I am magically fluent instead of stuttering and stumbling across silent suffixes.  I may not have fluent French even after a year and a half but I have fluent knowledge (does that even make sense…don’t care, I’m going with it); I know my city and my region, I know great places to visit around the country and tips and tricks on where to stay and what to do, I know the different regional accents and attitudes, I know the distinctive body language of a Parisian.  Pfffff….

So, I may not be fluent in French but I’m starting to become fluent in France and at the end of the day, I reckon that’s worth a lot more than a past participle.

*clearly an all time classic fairy tale, right millennials, right?

The Beau Reve

Learning French, Uncategorized

People say that when you begin to dream in another language that you are really starting to get it.   I suppose this shows that the new language has finally made enough of an impact on your brain to be able to seep into your subconscious.  Recently, I had just such a dream.  However, in my dream my subconscious and brain concocted a special little treat for me.

I can just imagine them strategizing:

Brain:  Okay, so what do we want to do tonight?

Subconscious:  Man…I don’t know, tidal wave?

Brain:  I’m so over the tidal-wave-coming-at-you-dream.  It symbolizes stress, duh.  I mean, if she hasn’t gotten the message by now then she never will.  I want something fresh, something different.

Subconscious:  Naked in public?

Brain:  Nah, it’s so lame, totally 1980’s sitcom.  Anyway, that one doesn’t seem to unnerve her that much.  I’m looking for something more entertaining.  It’s been slow lately.

Subconscious:  …sex dream?

Brain:  What?!  No way, dude.  You always end up putting some weird element in there.  It makes me uncomfortable.  I mean, Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years!  What was that about?”

Subconscious:  Whatever, we loved that show.

Brain:  All I know is that I ended up having to work out some serious guilt issues about Winnie Cooper.

My Subconscious shrugs.

Brain:  Hmmm…we could always do a dream with mean friends from the past.

Subconscious:  Ugh.  Please no, those are the worst.  They are always so painfully obvious and allegorical.  Vomit.

Brain:  Well, we have to come up with something.  We can’t keep her awake forever.

A moment passes.

Brain:  Haha, actually we totally could.  I could start coming up with lists right now.  She’ll never sleep!

Subconscious:  Ha, right?!  But seriously, it is so much easier when she just takes a Lunesta.  I could use some time off.

Brain:  Wait a minute…something new is coming in…something interesting, is that…no way, is that French?!

Subconscious:  You’re kidding?  It’s finally crossed over?  We can use it?

Brain:  Yeah dude, we got it if we want it.  What what! (my Brain sometimes masquerades as a character from Cougar Town) 

Subconscious:  Do people even say that anymore?  …Okay.  So, what are we gonna do with this?

Brain:  Oh, it’s gonna be so good.  This is what we do:  she’ll be in her dream, somewhere totally normal and commonplace in France.  Everyone will be speaking in perfect French but she won’t be able to come up with the right sentences.  She’ll respond to the perfect French that you and I are creating, – so in essence she is creating – , with the broken French that she uses in everyday life.

Subconscious:  Woah, what a mindf*ck.

Brain:  Right?

Subconscious:  So like, when she wakes up she will realize that she dreamed in correct French but that she still isn’t able to use it when she is awake.  Just wait until Conscious hears about this.  You are an evil genius.

My Brain lets out a malevolent laugh a-la Count Dracula. 

And Scene.

Yes, this dream did actually happen.

I actually dreamed in French, which was correct.  Everyone else in my dream could speak fluently and effortlessly except for moi; I was still speaking in my current level of French.  At first, I found this hugely unnerving but now I have decided that it should give me hope for the future.  Clearly, I’ve got the right components rolling around in my head, I just haven’t quite figured out how to put them all together.  I just hope that at the next strategy meeting my Conscious decides to show up.

Capitaine France!

Adjusting to France, Learning French

The French make a lot of sounds.  I’m not talking about pronunciation of their language, such as the elusive “r” sound or little things they say like “voila” and “oh la la”.  I mean, we all know about those because how else would we be able to make fun of a stereotypical French accent when we want to (and let’s face it, at some point in everyone’s life you will want to)?  No, I’m talking about noises; sounds that the French make constantly that are not based on any particular word.  There are three examples that come to mind:

“pffffff”  to make this sound exhale out of a barely opened mouth that is relaxed.  This is primarily used when one finds something irritating.  The level of irritation is irrelevant.  I will provide the following two examples:

Ex1:                                                                                                                                                   “The boss just called a meeting for tomorrow morning.”                                                               “C’est vrai?  Pfffff”.

Ex2:                                                                                                                                                     “The doctor says that we will have to amputate.”                                                                           “Merde.  C’est vrai?”                                                                                                                            “Oui.”                                                                                                                                                  “Pfffff”.

“uuuP” to make this sound basically just say “upsy daisy” without the “sy” or the “daisy”.  It’s like pronouncing “up” as though the word were going to continue past the “p”.  This is most commonly used at the completion of a task or perhaps mid-task.  Examples:

Ex1:                                                                                                                                                 MB is whining about not having any cheese, I go and retrieve it and as I hand it to him I say  “uuuP”.

Ex2:                                                                                                                                                             A waiter reaches across me to remove a plate, as he picks it up he says “uuuP”.

“pbt” to make this sound, blow air out of a stiff mouth that is just open in the middle, your tongue should go from the bottom of your mouth to the top, this should be done quickly (yes, I am sitting here making these sounds over and over again trying to figure out a way to describe them).*  This sound is used sort of like a punctuation, usually of a definitive statement.  Examples:

Ex1:                                                                                                                                                “I’m going to take this parking spot even though it is illegal. Pbt.”

Ex2:                                                                                                                                                 “Do you think that we should save the rest of the foie gras?”                                                “No, I will keep eating it until I am sick. Pbt.”

After a year in France, these sounds have even started creeping into my vernacular and it amuses me every time I let one slip.  I mean, Americans don’t have little noises that they make; unless you count general whoopin’ and hollerin’ (I go Southern with certain words) which is hardly as charming as “uuuP” or as coolly blasé as “pfffff”.  These sounds in French lend a cartoon-like essence to the language, and really, to the French themselves.  Sort of like an old Batman comic but instead of the sound bubbles saying things like “kapow!” or “zap!” they would say “uuuP!” and “pfffff.”.

My version would go something like this:

Capitaine France Strikes Again! 

By day he is just another disgruntled, chain-smoking Parisian; but by night he is Capitaine France!  Protecting the Parisian streets from vulgar tourists and chain restaurants!

A couple in tennis shoes walks by talking loudly in American accents.

“Well June, I don’t know where we should eat.  I don’t see anything I recognize.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake Carl, there’s a TGI Friday’s in the ninth-E-M, we can just go there.”

After stubbing out his cigarette, in swoops Capitaine France flying overhead.  He throws a stinky cheese bomb down at the couple.

 It makes a loud sound as it hits the ground,uuuP!””.

Suddenly a gaseous odor enters the air.  The couple both starts hacking and coughing.  After a minute, they both become high from the smell being emitted from the cheese; they walk off like zombies towards a cute French bistro.  Satisfied, Capitaine France begins to fly off but not before a sleazy promoter steps in front of the couple.

“Don’t go to this place, instead you should go to Café Americain, they serve burgers.  Here is a brochure.”

For a moment, the couple is snapped out of their trance.  Horrified, Capitaine France turns back and throws his lethal baguettes at the sleazy promoter.

He lets out a “pfffff”” as he throws them. 

The lethal baguettes do their job and the couple continues into the cute French bistro.  Capitaine France finally lands in front of the restaurant.

“Mon travail est fini,” he proclaims as he pour a glass of red wine.

“pbt” 

*In the movie French Kiss, Kevin Kline tries to pull of this sound multiple times; there is an example in the last few seconds of this trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TF9xsk3tmoA. Sadly, I can’t find a proper French example. 

The Luck of the “Quoi”

Learning French

“You are just guessing now,” MB says.  “You aren’t even attempting to work it out in your head.”

“No, I’m stupid, obviously.  Just stop trying to teach me; it’s pointless.”

MB is rolling his eyes at me.  “Eh,” he says to me, giving me a no-nonsense stare (like that’s gonna work).  “Come on, it takes practice!  You just have to keep going until you get it.”

“I’m never going to get it,” I say defiantly.  “It’s impossible for my stupid, stupid brain.”  I’m pouting now and possibly on the verge of a temper tantrum.

“You are not even trying to learn it,” MB says like a lecturing school teacher.

“I can’t learn it; I’m too dumb.  Aren’t you listening?”  And the sarcasm monster has been unleashed.

“Of course you can, you just won’t pay attention.”

This comment is selectively ignored.

“You don’t understand; my brain doesn’t comprehend this type of stuff.  It’s just like math!”  I’ve now morphed into “math is hard” Barbie.

“You must have been horrible to tutor,” MB says with aplomb.

I am outraged.

“What?!  NO, I was awesome.”  I was terrible.  (This entire conversation is an example of the primary tactic I employed throughout high school: annoy your tutor until they are too exhausted to fight anymore.  This is probably why I am still incompetent at algebra.)

MB gives me a look.

I cock my head to the side innocently, “quoi,” I say sarcastically with a shrug.

MB gives me another look but says nothing.  Clearly, he is waiting for me to simmer down and be reasonable.

Right, like that is going to happen.

7 seconds have passed and MB still hasn’t said anything.

It’s all I can handle.  Silence is my kryptonite.

“Fine, fine, fine, I’ll calm down and really try,” I say.  “But seriously, I feel like I’m studying statistics,”

“No,” MB responds, “statistics makes sense.”

For the past week, in my French course, we have been focusing on relative pronouns, “pronoms relatif simples: que, qui, où, dont” (I find the whole “simples” description to really just be a slap in the face), or as I like to call them: “jerkfaces”.  These are handy little words in French that are used to link the dependent clause with the main clause in a sentence by replacing the subject or the direct object (I can barely even understand what I just wrote).

Ex: I ate the apples.  You bought the apples. (Je mange les pommes.  Tu acheté les pommes.)

àI ate the apples that you bought. (Je mange les pommes que tu as achetées.) “THAT” or “QUE” would be the “jerkface”…or the pronom relatif simple.

This seems pretty straight-forward, right?  HA!  Mais non, mon petit!  From here on out it becomes increasingly convoluted (I mean, this is France after all).  I could try to explain it but then again if I could properly explain it I wouldn’t be writing this.*

Every exercise I have done this week has made me feel increasingly idiotic.  After translating the sentence (which can take me quite a while), I then have to break down and analyze the sentence.  Then I have to sort out which pronoun to use and every single pronoun has a myriad of exceptions to their general rules, which is awesome…except the opposite of that.  The teacher expects me to manage this in the amount of time that it takes for me to read the sentence once so really, it just comes down to the luck of the draw.

Okay,” I think, as the teacher goes around the room doling out questions.  ”I’m going to get #5.  Do I have that right?”

I never have it right.  I usually have the question before it and after it right but never the question that I have to read out loud.  So I answer with my random guess that I have written down and the teacher gives me that sad, frustrated look of disappointment.

The only thing that has kept me sane the past few days has been the reassurance from MB and my French friends that French grammar is exceedingly complicated (although why it is reassuring to have a native speaker tell you it is really difficult, I’m not sure).  At least I know I’m not the only one.  I will continue to persevere as so many Anglos have done before me and eventually I’m sure that I will comprehend when to use “dont” over “que”.  Until then, it is quite likely that I will continue to throw temper tantrums, constantly have sweaty palms in class, and be subject to a few more silent treatments.

*If you are curious, here is a brief and incomplete explanation:  http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/relativepronouns.htm.  If you feel confident after reading this explanation, try this quiz: http://french.about.com/library/weekly/aa092799t.htm.  Let me know how that whole “dont” thing works out for ya.

 

You Speakin’ in English?

Learning French, Living Abroad

On an afternoon out with a one of our recent visitors, we were walking down the street speaking in English.  At one point, we wandered by a group of young men, all speaking in French, as we got close, one of them said, quite loudly, “Hello!  How are you?”  We smiled back but kept walking.  Later, we walked by an elderly gentlemen who was looking out his window, he was speaking to someone in the back of the house in French, but just as we passed, I heard a distinct “Hello!”  I said “Hello” back and smiled; he seemed satisfied.

This is a scenario that happens often.  If I am wandering the market with an English-speaking friend, the vendor might give me the price in English or say “thank you” instead of “merci”, even though I will speak to him in French.  Once, when I was standing in the line for the fromagerie with another Anglo, the young man in front of us turned around and explained every cheese that we should try and why…in perfect English.

This rarely happens when I am alone, even though it will be obvious that I am definitely an English speaker (maybe it’s a kind of tough love?); but when I am with other Anglos, it happens all the time.  I can imagine the conversations with their friends after we walk by…

“What?  You didn’t know I speak English.  I mean, doesn’t everyone speak English?  Mon dieu, the English can speak English so you know it cannot be hard.”

We walk by again.

“Hello,” waving wildly at us.  “I am fine, yes friends, good day!”

We smile awkwardly and keep walking.

”See?”  He will say this to his friends.  “I told you!”

Another visitor in from out of town was at the market on her first day in France.  She was standing in a crowded stall and at some point another patron gave her a gentle nudge so as to pass by on the aisle.

“Oh – sorry! ‘Scuze! Uh crap, pardon,” she said, alarmed.  She couldn’t quite remember the exact phrase and I could tell she was a bit unnerved by it.

The elderly man who had nudged past smiled kindly and professed, quite loudly, “you’re welcome!”  And then went on to choose his vegetables, looking extremely pleased with himself.  I could practically hear his internal thoughts, “nailed it!”

This exchange made me laugh and my friend looked utterly confused.  The man had no idea what he had actually said but he knew it was English and that was enough for him.

I know the reasons for these little tidbits of English being thrown around.  Mainly it is people excited to have the opportunity to practice speaking or in the case of the young men, excited to try to chat some girls up (…that’s right, ego, I said it) but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is; it always feels good and it always makes me smile.  When you are in a foreign country, hearing a bit of your mother tongue is sort of like someone winking at you or saying “cheers” without actually saying it.  It’s an unsolicited “you’re welcome” when you haven’t yet said “thank you”.