Tuesday, October 10, 2017

la bouchère

This is serious …    

I could fill this entire blog discussing the mishaps of language, the ongoing mistakes which constitute my days. And while I do like humorous self-deprecation, focusing entirely on these erreurs could be tricky, that is to say risky, for a person whose self-esteem tends to the low side. Better to do it just occasionally, gather them up in a pile and save them for a rainy autumn day. Like today.

An image came to mind recently when I was talking with Thomas, parent to a girl in le petit garçon’s class. I knew Thomas would figure into this blog soon enough: he and his wife have been terrifically kind and warm, and despite my many mistakes, the countless times I’ve stood slack-jawed and helpless in search of the right word, he keeps coming back friendly.

Thomas’ new bicycle was stolen recently, poor guy. He said he has this fantasy of apprehending the criminal; by way of empathic commiseration, I endeavored to share the tale of my own stolen bicycle, in Seattle. It is the finest of my stories, arcing through introduction, rising action, exciting climax, and satisfying resolution. It would have to be in the past tense, of course. The first sentence alone is a tongue-twister — mon vélo a été volé — but I go for it anyway.

Soon though my language skills can’t keep up with my enthusiasm. Forget it, I think, we’re going with the present here. Later I recall how it must have sounded to native ears:
    I lost my bicycle also, in Seattle.
    I apprehended the asshole. Just like you said.
    But it was three weeks after! Yes!
    I saw the bicycle. There is a guy on it. So I run! I catch him. Then I have to pay for my bicycle. Ten dollars. No—fifteen. (Wait, fifty?) Fifteen!
    Because there is no one who can help.
    In fact, he says twenty and I say ten and he says fifteen. And I give him twenty and he gives me five. Ha ha ha! So I must pay for it but I also have to negotiate the amount!

Ha ha ha.

That’s when this image materialized. As I rode away after our conversation, in my mind’s eye I saw blood and entrails left all over the sidewalk, vowels mispronounced and consonants that should have been silent and the poor verbs, just cut to pieces. They’re gasping for air and I head off, waving. À demain!

I saw that here in France, far as language goes, I am in effect walking around with a hatchet in my hand. I walk up to the sweet guy at the bakery, and we say hello, and I pull out my axe, and chop our exchange to bits. Blood everywhere. OK, bonne journée! I say as I leave, smiling cheerily.

Imagine these beets are French verbs in their infinitive form: whole, innocent, unsullied & unconjugated …    

I approach each situation, and just lift that baby up and hack away. Conjugation? Ha! Take that! Pronunciation? Wack! Gender? Wa-HA! Chop chop chop. Gotcha.

I pick up le petit garçon from school, and I meet another of my favorite parents, Marc. He’s looking for his kid, and as we do our bises and say hello I whip out my machete and begin to speak, flinging words everywhere, shredding them to pieces. Are you playing this weekend? I’m wondering how he knows I’m playing tennis with Thomas — word travels fast! But turns out he’s talking about music. Oui! I say, and then I immediately say, Oh non non non — not this Saturday. Maybe in two or three weeks. I’ll let you know. Hack hack hack.

I pick up a few words, even familiar ones, and scrunch them in a ball and hurl them across the courtyard.

I depart, and in my wake there is a pile of battered verbs and nouns gasping their final breaths.

till I get my hands on them    

So, because if I don’t laugh about it I will lie in bed all day feeling hopeless, lonely, and disconnected, I thought I’d share a few latest gaffes. By the time I get this posted I’ll have made a dozen more, easy.

My favorite was when Hélène, Thomas’ wife, had an important meeting with a potential nanny for their baby girl. I’m crossing my fingers, she said, lifting hers up. Me too! I concurred supportively. “Je croise les dents!” So close, Una — so close — but it’s doigts, not dents; crossing teeth is physically unlikely at best.

And then there was the time when I went to the park with some other parents and actually tried to chitchat. I’m like, good work kid, you’re progressing, you’re following the conversation! Marc’s talking about how he’s been having trouble sleeping lately. Got it. But — whoa — now we’re … talking about courgettes? How on earth do zucchini fit in here? O… kay… is he suggesting that eating zucchini before bed helps with insomnia? Strange, these French people; but hell, maybe it’s worth a try! I soon figure out that Marc — who is the director of a cinema in town — has seen and is recommending the film Ma Vie en Courgette, which is just out in theatres. Jaysus.

Could one of these per day … keep insomnia at bay ?!?    

I recall visiting Normandy, standing on the beach gazing out at the ocean, chatting with my belle-mère about the sea animals and how sometimes one can observe lots of seals. It was phoque this, and phoque that, and it was all I could do to not pee my pants.

My Aussie friend Pat reasoned that ‘preservatif’ sounds Latin enough so must surely mean the same thing in French. So it was awkward to discover that he’d been telling his parents-in-law that he eats condoms on toast for breakfast. He isn’t the only one I’ve heard make this mistake — Laetitia, a fellow Smithie, did the same as a teenager in Normandy, asking someone at the end of the breakfast table, a huge affair with 15+ people, that she would very much like the condoms, and was met with dead silence. False friends indeed.

Often, by the time I’ve deduced the topic, formed a smart, relevant comment in my mind, and built the courage to say it, the conversation has moved on. And of course I’ve waited for a lull, making my now-non-sequitur even more conspicuous and awkward.

Sadie, another Smithie, told a story about talking politics with some friends in Prague when everything was just starting to boil over in Ukraine. At a silence in the conversation, she figured she should chime in, so she loudly interjected what she thought meant “Putin wants Crimea!” — but apparently she’d just exclaimed “Putin wants horseradish!” Sigh. Our sophisticated ideas don't sound so erudite if we mistake vegetables for geographic regions.

Kristine (Smithie!) had a job to accompany and translate for Americans coming over to visit her company. One visitor worked hard at using her French whenever possible. They were invited to a manager's house for dinner, and she wished to compliment the host on the starter, so she practically shouted out "J'adore les beets". But ‘beet’ in English sounds just like ‘bite’ in French — slang for penis. Diplomatic incident avoided, phew.

I was telling a student about our trip to Brittany, and how we ate crêpes, and he was like, you went to Brittany and ate what? And after four or five tries I’m starting to laugh — what the f--- else do you think of when you think of food in Brittany? I mean, even if I said nothing you could probably guess I ate crêpes on my trip. Crêpes! Crêpes! I adjust the ‘e’, guessing mine must be either too open or too closed, say it again. “Crabs?” he asks, scrunching up his fingers and wriggling them in the gesture of a crab? NO! I didn’t eat crabs, I ate crêpes!

We finally figure it out, and laugh, but I’m both puzzled and embarrassed. What just happened? Is my pronunciation that horrid? (Don’t answer that.)

this is not a crab. (image thanks to Del's Cooking Twist)    

I’m guilty of doing the same in reverse of course, of misunderstanding plain, everyday words spoken by my friends learning English. Like when I’m asked to pass the potato chips and I wonder why we are talking about fluffy animals running around in a field bleating. But the context, Una! Would we be eating sheeps? Of course we would not.

The thing is, you can’t all of a sudden be good at it, you can’t reach advanced without first going through beginning and intermediate. I can’t skip this (evidently rather long) phase of language-learning, which right now seems like an endless plateau stretching out before me.

For the moment, all I have in my toolbox is this hatchet (and an earnest smile). Eventually I will be able to sit at the table with a proper fork and knife, my napkin in my lap, skillfully picking apart the language and carving it neatly into little morsels. In the interim, hacking with a blunt instrument will have to do. How long will it go on, I wonder on difficult days, this suspended idiocy? How much longer can I handle the embarrassment of it?

Longer, apparently.

but not that serious.    


  1. Super description. It is exactly how I feeel right now. Wonderfully written and a really good laugh. Thanks una xx love Charlotte

  2. Hi Una! I’m in Pays-Basque which is really a country within France! I’ve been speaking French for at least 17 years now, and I still feel like I walk away from an abattoir after I speak! But I have my good French (conversations I’m well versed in) and bad French (conversations I am not). I think of it as in English, trying to participate in a conversation with a group of mechanics as opposed to talking about things you enjoy talking about. Same idea, I suppose. The ebbs and flows of comfort levels of speaking will swell, then dissipate. Then they’ll swell more and more. But still, I think I mistook art opening (“vernissage”) with de-worming pill (“vermifuge”- it’s not for me- it’s for my dog!)

  3. I love this. I will use it in my drawing classes. Everyone expects to be an expert right away and we always say, "You wouldn't expect to learn French overnight would you?" This is classic.