Capitaine France!

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.


*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: Sadly, I can’t find a proper French example. 

The Luck of the “Quoi”

“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:  If you feel confident after reading this explanation, try this quiz:  Let me know how that whole “dont” thing works out for ya.


You Speakin’ in English?

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”.

The Electric Choice

“So, I think we can fit you in for three weeks in March and April, yes?”  The woman at Alliance Francaise is sitting at a desk with her calendar out.  We have spent fifteen minutes comparing my schedule for the next three months with the school’s schedule of French classes.

“Yes, possibly more, I want to take classes for as long as possible,” I respond, sounding very much like a dedicated student.  “It is very important.”

“You know, really you should be speaking in French to me right now,” she responds.

“Then why are you speaking to me in ENGLISH, Frenchie-Trickster,” I want to scream but choose instead to give her a tight smile.

She continues.

“So, what is so important, why do you want to take French classes?  This is for work?  For school?”

“Because I was electrocuted and I like my eyebrows to be consistent.”

Rewind to one week earlier.

“Vous connaissez ce,” asks the esthetician, holding a glass wand in the air.

I am lying on my back on a massage table…mid-facial.

“Ah oui…”  I respond, looking at the wand.  This is the tool used in some facials to pass electrical current through the muscles in your face.  It is a procedure that I have endured before.

“Ah bon,” she says as she turns it on.

The wand starts snapping and I see the blue lightning bolts of current begin running through the glass just as she brings it to my face…with a much higher voltage than I am used to.

“Holy sh*t,” I think.  “This is a little intense.”

I try to figure out how to explain to her that I am fine with the treatment but that maybe we could use a slightly lower voltage.  However, my brain is not computing the sentence.  I race through my internal file cabinet of French words and can’t seem to be able to combine anything that would make a shred of sense.

“Wait…should I be tasting metal in my mouth?”

Nothing like a little mild electrocution to motivate you to go back to French school.

For months now, I have been looking at my schedule trying to sort out the time when I can go back and take a solid three months of French classes but something always seems to be in the way; I have too much work, or we have visitors coming in town, or a trip that has already been planned.  There is always a reason; but this is the last straw.  I have crooked eyebrows because I have been plucking them myself for the past year.  My skin is shamefully dirty because of my (apparently reasonable) fear of getting a facial without the correct language skills, and don’t even get me started on the state of my feet.

There are some things I can endure…like not knowing how to respond when a police officer asks you a question or having to have MB accompany me to the gynecologist; but dirty pores?!  JAMAIS!  I need to live in a world in which I can go and get hair waxed off my body without worrying about getting a third degree burn, a world where I can explain to my hairstylist that I hate short bangs, …a world where I can go and have a facial without fear of neurological damage!

And so…I am re-enlisting, for a better tomorrow!  A tomorrow in which I can choose to pay to be electrocuted at the exact voltage of my preference.

To Err is Human



“Non, non!  Attention!”  My French professor claps her hand and points to me.  “You! Watch my mouth, yes?  ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL, ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR…okay?”

I look at her helplessly and place my tongue on the top of my mouth.  “ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL,” then move the tongue to behind my front teeth, “EAIIIRRRRRASDKFLJSKDGLJKSRRRRRR…”

“I do not understand,” she looks at me with irritation.  “Why you cannot do this?  ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.”  She says it even more slowly as though somehow I was confused.  The letter “R” is written on my worksheet and on the board and coming out of her mouth…I get it…I just can’t pronounce it.

You might think that learning the French language is the hardest part, and it is difficult, but the accent presents a whole new challenge.  In attending French classes, I thought that we would be studying vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and we did; but I had no idea about the amount of time we would spend doing things like repeating, “ohhhhhh….ahhhhhh….ehhhhh” in order to retrain my American mouth to make the right shape.

In many countries, you wouldn’t bother to even try to perfect your accent.  It is considered “cute” to have an accent and makes you more attractive and appealing…but this isn’t many countries, this is France.  And while there are some French people who will tell you that your accent in French is adorable, more often than not they will spend copious amounts of time correcting each and every pronuncial (yes, I just made that word up) infraction that you make, no matter how great or small.

This isn’t done in a rude way or a mean way, just a very matter-of-fact way:

“Oui, mon copain aider (ah-day)—,” I might begin.

“Aider (eh-day).”  They will say this correction swiftly before you have even managed to finish your sentence.

“Ah oui, pardon, eh-day moi avec le lecon (less-on).”

“Lecon (loose-on).”

“Ah oui…avec le “loose-on” une (ahhh).”

“Une (ahn).”


“Tu dit une (ahhhhhhhhh) mais c’est une (ahn).  C’est obvious, non?”


By the time this rigmarole is over you have either a) forgotten what it was you were trying to say or b) lost your motivation to try to speak.  While this can be an extremely exhausting practice, I continue to press on…bad pronunciation and all.  I know that I’ll never be able to make the ERR sound properly but that’s okay, because after all, “to err is human, to forgive, divine” and maybe someday the French will forgive me.

The Chicken Dance

“Chicken happy can you monkey dance a cheese?”


“Chick-en happy can. You. Monkey. Dance. A cheese?”

“I am sorry; I do not understand what you are saying.”

I have decided that it would be hysterical to have my own English subtitles, you know, just a little screen in front of me to translate what I say in French into English.  Mind you, this would not be to help other people understand me, but so that I could see what it is that I am actually saying.

Lately, I have become more confident in my abilities to speak French (generally fueled by one of those extra-long aperitifs).  I speak rapidly and say multiple sentences at a time.  I do that whole “thoughtful pause” that foreigners always do that makes them look so casual and smart as they try to find the right word to use.  All in all, I look like the super-cool, multi-lingual expat…as long as you don’t speak French.

I remember going to Costa Rica with a friend of mine a few years ago.  Her family is Costa Rican but she was raised in the U.S.

“Wow,” I told her.  “Your Spanish is so good!”  To me she sounded like a local.

She laughed.  “That is only because you don’t know what I am saying.”

It is the same for me here in France.  If you don’t speak a lick of French and you hear me conversing you might think, “Wow, she has really got a handle on the language”; however, if you are French and you hear me speak French you will probably think “quoi?”

For example, I know the word for “good” and I know the word for “walk” but I didn’t know that when you put them together they don’t mean “good walk” but instead mean “cheap”.  These types of little confusions combined with my tragic pronunciation are why I often find myself staring into the baffled faces of French people.  They try to be nice and pretend they know what I am saying, but having been the foreigner for so long, I know what those smiling nods mean.

Maybe I should start asking trick questions to see if my sentences are coming out right:

“So, you love American food?”  I will ask in French.

“Oui, absolutement” they will reply, giving me an encouraging smile.

BUSTED!  Clearly no French person would ever say such a thing.*

Or maybe I could try…

(in French)

“While the French make some decent wine, Americans wines are much better, yes?”

“Ah oui, d’accord.”

DOUBLE BUSTED!  Come to think of it, this could become a rather entertaining little game.

But then again, is it such a bad thing for people to placate you?  Is it so horrible that they want to encourage instead of discourage?  It’s good to be given some motivation to keep trying, to have people pretending through the sentences they don’t understand so that they can piece together the ones that they do.  Of course, it would be nice to know whether I am asking if they enjoy the flavor of the fromage or if I am saying “happy chicken can you monkey dance a cheese”; but I guess I’ll just have to wait for the subtitles.

*Not only would a French person never say that they loved American food, they would be utterly confused as to what was meant by American food.  My repeated experience has been that most of them think that everyone in America eats cheeseburgers three times a day.

The Translation of Cool

“He brushed his lips to hers, a teaching, then a sinking, sinking until it was drowning deep.  His hands were on her, reminding her what it had been, confusing her with what is was now.

Strong, hard –“ *

I hear a beep and click my Ipod off.  The treadmill starts the cool down phase as I look around warily, wondering if anyone has suspected that I am listening to sexy romance novels while at the gym.  It is one of my secret shames that I absolutely adore these types of books and I’m always terrified that someone will somehow know that I am out in public listening to stories about “throbbing members”.

After the gym, I stop in at the Franprix grocery store to pick up something for dinner.  The same cashier who is always there and always wants to talk is at the register.  While he is a very congenial fellow, he sort of gets on my nerves; so I try to look as unapproachable as possible, ear buds in.

Him:  Bonjour!!!!!!

Me:  Bonjour.  (accompanied by a quick no-nonsense smile)

This conversation was entirely in French.

Him:  So, you are very serious this morning.

Me:  Yes, it is necessary for the gym.

What does that even mean?

Him:  Ah yes, I understand.

I guess he gets it.

I notice the old lady behind me in line soaking up every word of our conversation.

Him:  So, what music are you listening to?

Me:  Ah no, I am listening to a book, not music.

Him:  What book?

Slight pause.  Think, you fool, think!

Me:  Nora Roberts.

Epic choke.

The old lady behind me starts laughing.  A wave of embarrassed heat crosses my face.

Me:  I know it is not great literature!

I am feeling a desperate need to explain myself – suddenly, I’m the husband saying he just bought Playboy for the articles.

Him:  It is okay.

He catches the eye of the old lady behind me and winks.  I am the laughing stalk of the Franprix.

It is very hard to be cool in a foreign language.  Normally, in such a situation, I would have been able to come up with something brilliant:

Him:  What are you listening to?

I raise a hand for silence as I switch off my Ipod…oozing cool.

Me:  What was that?  (I smile condescendingly)

Him:  I was wondering what you are listening to.

Me:   Tolstoy, War and Peace…so powerful.

Him:  (just silence and respect)

This is how these conversations usually go…when I’m not frantically trying to figure out how to formulate a sentence in French.  However, I have found that my ability for blarney (and I kissed that creepy stone has been diminished entirely by my non-ability in French.  My brain is so busy scrambling around, searching for vocabulary while simultaneously trying to concentrate on what is being said that it can’t possibly take the time to worry about being cool!

The ramifications of this are substantial.  Usually, upon first meeting someone, I can fool them into thinking I’m cool for at least a month or so before my inner dork makes its appearance and they realize they’ve been duped.  But now, the curtain has been drawn; I am exposed:


Ahhh!  Shame spiral.

So, be forewarned. While you might think it sounds like the epitome of cool to move to a foreign country, the truth of the matter is that ‘cool’ is the hardest thing to translate.

* Excerpt from Nora Roberts ‘Black Hills’