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. 

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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.

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”.

The Electric Choice

Learning French

“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

Learning French

“ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL…, ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR…repeté s’il te plait!”

“ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL, EAIIIRRRRRASDKFLJSKDGLJKSRRRRRR”

“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).”

“Quoi?”

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

No.

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 7 Stages of an Awkward Dinner

Holidays in France

MB found the place online and it looked charming, a 15th century farmhouse in the country, excellent reviews on trip advisor, and only thirty minutes from town.  What could possibly go wrong?  So we packed our little overnight bags, hopped in the car, and made our way out of the city for a relaxing Saturday in the country. 

After a half hour and a couple of wrong turns we finally made our way to the gate of the B&B.  It was night time and we couldn’t see much but all seemed promising.  We were ushered in by the effusive and friendly hostess who quickly showed us to our rooms along with another couple.  The place was beautiful, there was stone work and exposed beams, murals on the wall, a gorgeous large wooden table–wait a minute!

Stage 1: DENIAL

MB shut the door to our room and turned to me.

“Oh la la la la…”  He put his hand to his head.

“What?!”  Everything had seemed alright to me.

“That table, you saw the table?”

“Yeah, so wha—oh crap.”

“Yeah.”

“You think?”  I asked, my voice ridden with panic.  “Surely not, no way, this place is so nice, that would be totally weird.” 

Stage 2: GUILT

A half hour later we descended with our plan to find out whether the dinner would be at the table or if there was another dining room.  After ordering a couple of glasses of wine from the hostess (which she seemed unaccustomed to…we were still in France, right?), MB casually asked if this was where we came for dinner. 

“Ah oui,” she trilled.  “At seven o’clock!”  

Our fate was sealed.

We returned upstairs, despondent in our grief. 

“This isn’t going to be relaxing at all!”  I cried.

“I know, this is terrible.  I am not in the mood for this, I don’t want to talk to strangers.”

“I can’t talk to strangers, oh my god, this is going to be horrible!”

“I never should have booked this place.  I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, how are you supposed to know that it was going to be like this?  It is my fault; I’m the one who wanted to get out of town.”

“We will just have to get through this together.”  MB holds me tightly.

Stage 3: BARGAINING

 “Maybe, maybe we can go down early and eat before everyone else?”  MB looks at me hopefully.

“You think?  What if we just have to sit at the table and wait…then it will just prolong it!”

“It is worth a try, yes?”

Suddenly, we hear the door down the hall open.

“NON!”  MB looks stricken.  “They have already left!”

“This sucks!  Why do we have to do this?  It is total bullsh-t!  I mean, don’t people come to these places to relax?  What is relaxing about this?”  I am becoming progressively defiant.

“I know, it is ridiculous, who are the people who want to do this?”

Stage 4: DEPRESSION

Finally, we arrive at the table downstairs.  It is set for the exact number of guests and has us all squeezed in, elbow to elbow.  The older couple down the hall from us is already seated. 

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”

Sigh.

We take our seats and look at each other across the table, MB is silently questioning me and I am questioning right back.  The hostess is nowhere to be found.

In French

“So, where are you from?”  MB asks the couple.

“Lyon,” responds the man.

“Ah.”  MB waits to see if there will be more.  “We are in from Grenoble.”

“Ah,” says the man. 

“So, what do you do?”  MB looks at the couple.

The woman responds first.  “I am a teacher.”

MB waits.  Nothing.

“What grade is it that you teach?”

“9-12”

“And you like it?”

“Yes.”

The couple looks at MB expectantly; he has now become proprietor of the conversation.  He looks at me desperately.  “I can’t help you,” I say with my eyes, “We are trapped, there is no way out.”

Stage 5: UPWARD TURN

Finally the hostess appears with a much appreciated bottle of wine, which we are put in the awkward position of splitting with our new found acquaintances.  Another woman descends from upstairs with her dog and sits at the far end of the table, as far away from everyone as possible, I stare at her enviously.  Then, suddenly, the doors open and a frosty chill enters the room…darkness falls upon the table as couple #2 sits down.

The woman, almost immediately, bursts into caustic laughter before proceeding on a tirade complaining about everything from the wine selection, to the food, to the fact that we all had to sit together.  She then goes on to spend the rest of the dinner making sour faces and alienating the entire table while her companion makes half-hearted attempts at salvaging the situation. 

All of a sudden, the first couple seems like long lost friends as we find ourselves all making eye contact across the table, communicating our disbelief at her behaviour (which seemed to only exacerbate it further).  We are now comrades, struggling through the war together.

Stage 6: RECONSTRUCTION

Finally…finally, the dessert course is brought out.  I look at MB longingly; I can already tell that I am stuck in one of those French “no one knows how to leave the table” situations.  “Get up,” I think.  “Get up, for the love of GOD, don’t ask another—“  Too late, MB was already off asking couple #1 another question that is answered with two words. 

Then it hits me, EUREKA!  Cigarette!

I look at MB and nod toward the outside patio.  I see the comprehension on his face.

“Ah, excuse us, we will go and have a cigarette now.”

We both get up from the table and walk to the adjoining patio. 

“Oh my god,” I breath.  “That was horrible.”

“After this, we just say goodnight, don’t sit back down.  We’re going to make a run for it.”  MB looks at me seriously. 

“Got it.”

As soon as MB stubs out his cigarette, we are back inside picking up our coats and heading upstairs, while desperate eyes follow us out.  The hostess has now joined the table and has them all trapped in forced merriment. 

Stage 7: ACCEPTANCE

“Pfff…I am so happy that is over.”  MB flops on the bed.

“Me too,” I turn to look at him.  “But, how are we going to do it again in the morning?”

“I think tomorrow we skip breakfast.”

The Chicken Dance

Learning French

“Chicken happy can you monkey dance a cheese?”

“Quoi?”

“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

Learning French

“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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blarney_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:

“I LOVE NORA ROBERTS – WHILE FOMULAIC AND PREDICTABLE, I FIND HER BOOKS HUGELY SATISFYING!”

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’

The Girl in the Plastic Bubble

Learning French

“Foux da fa fa?”  Says one girl.*

“Feau de foux!  Foux da fa fa fa fa,” replies the boy she is talking to.

“Mais oui, a le feau de foux a fa fa.  Ceau le le le foux de fa fa fa.”

All of France has started to sound like a Flight of the Conchords song.

“Alors, foux da fa fa?”

“Baby?”  MB is looking at me questioningly.  I am bouncing my head slightly while singing internally.

“What?”  I look around startled and he nods his head toward the girl next to us.

“Oh!  Désolé,” I say to her, a bit embarrassed.  “Répéter s’il te plaît?”

“What is it that you do while you are in France?”  The girl replies to me in English.

I sigh.  I would have understood her question in French; I just wasn’t listening.

After six months in France, I have finally managed to perfect the ‘zone-out’.

Of course, when we first arrive to parties, there will be the obligatory conversations; just basic niceties that will last about ten minutes.  After the first half-hour of the party, however, fewer and fewer people are speaking to me so I just climb into my bubble.  It’s not a rude thing.  For them, it is frustrating to try to struggle through a slow conversation in basic French with the new girl (not exactly the recipe for a rockin’ time at a party).   And for me, it’s just as exhausting; all that concentration, trying to separate words only to understand the sentence thirty seconds too late and realize that the conversation has moved on.   In the past I would try to fake it, you know, nod when others nod or laugh when other laugh.  But eventually, that always ends up backfiring and you realize that you have just agreed that Stalin wasn’t all that bad and that actually the situation in Darfur is hilarious.  Talk about awkward.

Sometimes there will be children or teenagers at the party and that usually works out well.  They all speak perfect English and are usually pretty happy to practice with the ‘cool’ American (before the French hit adulthood, they still think we are cool).  They will sidle up to me at the table and give me that clear, quiet look of comprehension:  Yes, we understand; no one talks to us either. 

Therefore, until I perfect my French, I am relegated to my bubble or to the children’s table (not such a bad fate, the children’s table…beware, they pick up on everything).  So, if you speak to me and I seem to ignore you, don’t take it personally; I just don’t know what ‘foux da fa fa’ means!

*Credit where credit is due:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5hrUGFhsXo