French For Dummies
My mom was a French teacher, so guess what language I got to take in school? Yep. French. I must say, no one even inquired whether I would like to take a different one, as was so often the case. Mom used a lot of French and English words interchangeably, so a lot of our little family jokes are multilingual. She minored in Spanish, but apparently this did not rate, except that we always referred to hands as “manos”.
I got pretty much immersed in French. I knew a lot more words than I thought I did, even as a kid. My folks referred to each other as “Homme” (Man), and “Femme” (Woman), except to be cute, they shortened their pet names to Um and Fum. Since French for girl is “Fille”, I got called Fee, and was photographed in front of every US Fee area sign across the United States. Ha ha.
Mom referred to most body parts by their French names, so when I was a kid, a “bouche” was of course a mouth, and “pieds” were of course feet. Didn’t everybody know that?
Mom was a Helicopter Parent long before it was cool (was it ever?) and had me doing all sorts of fun projects, like doing French language tapes while washing the dishes, which annoyed the piss out of me. I used to roll my eyes and rattle the dishes while chanting zombie-like enchanting phrases such as “Bonjour, Sylvie! Ou est le bibliotheque?” (Because a library is the first thing we look for when we arrive in France.)
By the time I got to high school, I had taken years of French. Looking back on it, it was pretty amazing. I remember in one French lit class, we read Camus and “Le Compte de Monte Cristo” in the original. In my boarding school, we were given assignments to translate Edie Piaf songs into English for fun. One day, it was pretty outside, so we had the classroom windows open. Our teacher required us to speak only French in class. A wasp flew in the window, landed on the soft part of my thumb, and stung the crap out of me. I jumped out of my seat and yelled “SHIT!!” Madame eyed me with irritation, sighed, and said, “Non. MERDE.” Je regrette, Madame, je regrette..
I admit, we did have fun. Mom and I went to Europe together at least two or three times, once on an art museum tour, since we took an Art History class from the same teacher at Alabama, just about a decade apart. (We were, of course, superlative students.) We hit the Louvre, and Les Tuileries, and Monet’s home, with the real water lilies. We used our French every chance we got. Mom had lived in France for a time when she was in college, as part of an exchange program, so between the two of us, we could whip up a pretty good conversation.
I did discover that native French speakers are not necessarily ecstatic about dabblers in their language. When trying to buy a t-shirt in Paris, the sales girl hautily informed me to “Speak English. It will be easier.” Bitch.
We derived great amusement from travel guide books. You can learn some truly useful phrases in them! One that can still make Mom and me howl after all these years: “Il y’a des moustiques au plafond! Veuillez les vaporiser.”, which translated literally into English means, “There are some mosquitoes on the ceiling. Please come vaporize them.” Awesome.
While I was in medical school, dating the Emotional Terrorist, his sweet sister lived in Montreal with her super jock boyfriend, who was an extreme skier who had grown up there, among other places. We would go up to see them every winter, to ski Mont Tremblant. Quebec, of course, has attempted to secede from Canada over the use of the French language, among other things. The Quebecerais are pretty insistent about the correct use of French, especially outside the tourist area of Montreal. The Emotional Terrorist, who had no language ability or knowledge (except for the ability to hurt my feelings, in which he was both fluent and multilinguall) wanted to insist on using “French” at all times, despite the fact that he didn’t know any. (He tried to pull the same bullshit in Chile, with Spanish, years later when he was visiting me there, with equally unimpressive results.) He crawled over the seat at the drive-through window at McDonalds and attempted to order his Egg McMuffin in French. Our host clapped his hand over ET’s mouth and hissed, “Don’t DO that! They will SPIT IN OUR FOOD.”
Years later, when I lived in New Orleans, I was friends with a “mixed” family – a French speaking Cajun woman had married a native Parisian, so their kids spoke fluent French, in two completely distinct dialects. When the daughter, my “birthday twin”, got married, she married an Irish man, in full tartan and kilt, and his best man was a Scotsman. What an amazing, wildass party! A bunch of drunk cajuns, Parisians, Scots and Irish? In New Orleans? And no, they don’t wear anything under those kilts! I was lucky to speak French well enough to speak it at the wedding and for some peculiar reason, one of my Mom’s childhood gifts to me were an entire collection of French folk songs, which by happy coincidence turned out to be French drinking songs. Who knew? Not my mom, that’s for sure. Somehow I got us started and we all started slurring, “Sur Le Pont D.Avignon”and “J’En Bourrez, Oui Oui Oui, J’En Bourrez, Non Non Non, J’En Bourrez, Si Le Vin Est Bon….”
I used to love to torment my friend Fred with phone calls, after I had moved away from NOLA. I was pretty good with accents, and I would ring him up and say, “Bonjour, Fre-e-e-d,” in this really sticky sweet accent, and I always had him convinced it was his ex-girlfriend, calling from Paris. He’d start jabbering away, and I’d hold up the receiver and laugh and laugh, and he’d know I’d got him again.
The ridiculous irony was, of course, that I had always wanted to learn Spanish. Beautiful as French is, in the US, it’s not all that useful. Some Cajuns (mostly the older ones) do still speak French, but the dialect is so extreme that it hardly sounds like French at all. You can use it in Quebec, but at your own risk, since they may spit on your McMuffin. Some regions of Africa are French-speaking, but if you’re stranded there, you may have worse problems than not speaking French. You can use it on some Caribbean islands, but frankly, they pretty much speak anything involving money. You can, of course, speak French in France, but again, native speakers of French are somewhat less welcoming of inexpert attempts than, say, their Spanish speaking counterparts.
Which leads us to Spanish. Which is spoken here and in myriads of other places, all the time. So when I started med school, and noticed that a LOT of my patients spoke it, it was time to learn Spanish, which is a whole ‘nother blog, for another time. But if I ever want to order “fries with that” in, say, a ski lodge on Mt Tremblant, I can at least be fairly confident that they won’t expectorate in my food.