What I Learn From My Daughter

Something unexpected happened this summer. My daughter’s French took off. I had feared that being out of French school, away from the structure, the exposure, and the other kids who spoke French would cause her to lose ground. Instead, she’s now speaking conversationally. Sometimes. When I switch to French, she switches to French. And with her father, she’s about 50/50, French/English. She loves to babble French sounds; it’s almost like her French is a year or so behind her English. The great thing: she’s enjoying it. She likes speaking French.

This whole thing has made the prospect of not having access to a French school much less scary. We’ll have to devise some sort of plan to make sure reading and writing in French develop – I still lean toward summer school in France for all of us – but I’m finally relaxing about the whole thing more and starting to believe the other bilingual families who have reassured us to not worry, it will happen.

I learn a lot from my daughter, too. Like when her friends came over and one of the boys stole a toy from her and ran away with it. She ran after him shouting, “Ça c’est à moi !” thus I learned the French version of “mine!” If I had guessed, I would have said, “C’est la mienne !”

It’s so strange sometimes to hear my daughter speaking in a foreign tongue. Before meeting a Frenchman and deciding to have children with him, the thought that my children might speak a language that I didn’t speak never crossed my mind. It’s developing organically in her, whereas in me it’s taking great effort. It makes this part of her a little mystery to me.

Recently, we spent some time with one of my husband’s brothers and his family while they were visiting California. Before we saw them, we told our daughter that she would be seeing her cousins and that she’d need to speak in French because they don’t speak English. She had a lot of questions.

“Mommy what language will Papa speak?”

“What language will you speak this weekend?”

Over the long weekend, we had to coach her and translate for her with her cousins. As cousins do, though, they found a way. Cousins always seem to share a special bond, an instant connection. Even with the language difference, they had fun together. By the last day, our daughter began to spontaneously, without our interference, speak to them in French.

She likes to talk about what languages people speak. She’s exposed to so many languages; in her class alone there were native French, English, Spanish, Turkish, Hindi, and Chinese speakers. Lots of multicultural families. Every once in a while she’ll babble something and tell me that she’s speaking Spanish. She’s not, but still, the awareness of different languages at such a young age is a gift, I think. With exposure and continued effort, I believe we can get there. We can’t give up. We won’t.

Après la déluge, and be careful what you wish for!

DSC01012“And when the skies fill up with clouds, I want something to happen. Thunderstorm, snow…. Anything is better than gray clouds that just sit there, doing nothing but being gray clouds blocking the sun.”

That would be a direct quote from my previous entry.

Yikes.

We arrived in Colorado along with the downpour and worst flooding this area has seen in decades. The storage facility where everything we owned was stored flooded; lucky for us the angels that are our moving company loaded our things into a van and got them out of there before the waters hit the facility. I am forever grateful. Overall, the worst of it for us was that we had packed for hot days filled with hiking the national parks of southern Utah, and instead found ourselves shivering in our car with the heater cranked up. We got lucky, much luckier than many here.

A wet but beautiful Zion

A wet but beautiful Zion

We’ve settled in, are back online, and now trying to reestablish: find preschools, activities, make friends, and for my husband, start work. I discovered this blog a year or two ago, and I’m counting on Bringing Up Baby Bilingual to help us find the French community in Colorado. (Looking forward to meeting you in person, Sarah!)

Did I mention it is ridiculously beautiful here? Stunning. Green, open, the Flatiron Mountain range soaring upward in the west… I feel a peace that I haven’t felt for years. I belong in a place like this.

Doo, doo, doo lookin' out my backdoor!

Doo, doo, doo lookin’ out my backdoor!

People are incredibly friendly and relaxed here. Wow, are-you-for-real friendly. Smiles are genuine and easy, people don’t hesitate to pause for a chat. The neighborhood we landed in has neighbors that actually do stuff, together. Block parties, camping trips, an Oktoberfest this weekend…. They have a Google calendar to plan their events. They banded together to help out flood victims. Many of them have stopped by to welcome us and make sure we got on the mailing list so we’d be included. This is old school Americana and I can’t believe our luck! Plus, Louisville, our new home, has the cutest little downtown with several yummy restaurants we’ve been systematically trying out.

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Café de Paris - a touch of France in Louisville, perhaps?

Café de Paris – a touch of France in Louisville, perhaps?

We made the mandatory visits to Ikea and Bed Bath and Beyond. We cruised down the freeway through the Denver suburbs to Ikea with our jaws dropped. Everyone here drives the speed limit. Not over. Right at it. In San Diego, we push it by a minimum of 15 miles an hour everywhere. We grumbled that people were moving so slow, then had to laugh at ourselves. Isn’t this part of why we came here? To be in less of a hurry? Reduce our pace from frantic to chill? In Target, I wandered through empty aisles where I never once had to maneuver around a traffic jam of carts nor squeeze by two or three people to grab what I needed from a shelf. When I got to the check out line, where I went straight to the conveyer belt and did not have to wait behind a minimum of five people, a party of two got in line behind me and the cashier sighed, “Ohmigod it’s crazy in here today.” I looked around. “Crazy? Really? This is crazy?” She sighed again. “Yes, I think we just don’t have enough cashiers or something.” Same thing at the post office today; I entered and did a happy dance because there were only two people in front of me. They guy behind me said under his breath, “Oh, no, a line.”

We visited our local park where a small group of 8 or 9 year olds were playing, scooters strewn over the patio and no parent in sight. My initial reaction was concern – where are their parents? Who lets their kids go to a park without supervision? What if they get hurt? Kidnapped? I could never…. And disappointment: how will I ever meet other moms if they aren’t taking their kiddos to the park? Then I caught myself and realized: this is how it is supposed to be. This is how my childhood was, the childhood I now idealize. Where I hopped on my bike and cruised the neighborhood, and the rule was I had to be home at dusk, or when my mom called out my name for supper. This is why we wanted to move here.

Where we hung out our last night in San Diego

Where we hung out our last night in San Diego

Transitions are hard. San Diego in our rear view mirror was a strange sensation, though we’ve been mentally preparing for it for almost two years now. It’s finally sinking in; this is our new home, we aren’t going back. I crave El Zarape, I wake up thinking I’ll take the kids to Kate Sessions Park to see our friends, or hike Torrey Pines. I miss my peeps. Yet, here, I’ve reunited with some dear long-term friends, and best of all – I’m back in touch with my soul. The soul that belongs in mountains with a book, a cup of hot cocoa, a fire in the fireplace, and hiking shoes at the ready.

Dare I say, bring on the snow?

Au revoir, Pacific Beach

Au revoir, Pacific Beach

Pas Mal

We visited a French friend’s home recently for the first time, and when I walked into their La Jolla area abode, complete with floor to ceiling windows and a spectacular view, I exclaimed: “This is such a fabulous house! Wow!”

My friend answered, with an indifferent shrug, “C’est pas mal.”

I stared at him. “That’s such a French answer.”

“Oui. There are some that are better, some that are worse, so: pas mal.”

And there you have it: French culture and American, juxtaposed. We Americans tend to be enthusiastic, perhaps overly so, of even the most mundane of things. “Oh my god, there is nothing better than potato chips. These ROCK.” Everything is awesome, amazing, choose your superlative. The French, on the other hand, can’t seem to muster up excitement about anything.

There’s little difference, for example, in how they describe something that’s great versus how they describe something that sucks: “C’est pas mal.” It’s not bad. This describes anything from something good to something fabulous. Then there’s: “C’est pas terrible.” Literally: It’s not terrible. This describes something awful.

As an aside, the word “terrible” in French is almost always used in the negative, except when it’s not, like here: C’est un truc terrible. Translation: It’s awesome.

Then there’s the typical response to someone proposing a great idea. Here, we’ll say, “What an amazing idea!” or something equivalent. The French will more typically say, “C’est pas bête,” Translation: That’s not stupid.

It’s easy to assume from all of this that Americans are shallow, fake, insincere, and that the French are a bunch of negative duds. No wonder we have so much trouble understanding each other!

Our interpretations of others are colored by our own biases, opinions, experiences, and of course, our cultural understandings. It is easy to generalize something, as I have above, that in truth is much more complicated and nuanced.

It’s also true that my friend’s house is really freaking awesome.

 

The Trouble With French…

 … is all those vowel sounds. Oh, and the “r”s. And the faux amis. Maybe I should just quit now.

The thought of quitting enters my head on a daily basis lately. My Phonetics and Oral Proficiency class wrapped up this week. Yesterday I listened to a recording of myself reading Enivrez-Vous by Baudelaire that I made the first week of class, and I cringed and squirmed in embarrassment. I know I’ve improved since then. The vowels that were once a mystery to me are now decipherable. The rolling “r” has improved, slightly. But rue and roue still elude me (read here about my experiences with these petit mots). Every time I say one of these words and my husband smiles and says, “You’re so cute,” I want to throw my textbook across the room and shout, “I quit!”

I have to remind myself how far I’ve come, and that progress is now measured as fine-tuning rather than huge leaps. My comprehension and pronunciation is much better than it was four months ago. Let alone when I first met my husband. We occasionally spoke French together on our first dates, and on one of these I was explaining to him that my neck, mon cou, really bothered me sometimes, but when I rested it or got a massage, it felt much better. Cou, phonetically, is [ku]. Not far from [ky], or cul, which means ass. I often confused the two. So as I spoke, he nodded and fought a smile, then laughed and told me he hoped massage and rest would help my aching ass.

More recently, when our daughter sang her French song about a hen sitting on a wall, as she got to this part: lève la queue et puis s’en va, I nearly choked on my water à la Jon Stewart style. Queue, the word for tail, is again close to cul to the untrained ear. I asked her to repeat what she’d said, and then realized that she wasn’t, after all, singing about a hen who sat on a wall and then decided to pick up her ass and leave.

I’ve spent a lot of time practicing vowel sounds. I think I’m finally distinguishing well between deux and douze (two and twelve), and I might even be able to order un croissant without waving one finger in the air (or a thumb, as one finger also confuses the French) to make it clear how many I’m asking for.

My face hurts after I speak French. There’s a lot more movement and tension in the jaw and cheeks in French than in English. You can tell a French person from a distance by the way their mouth moves when they speak and the tension in their facial muscles. English vowels are kind of lazy, really. We warp them to make it less of an effort for ourselves. Don’t believe me? Try the words “can” and “than” on their own and then in a sentence or two, and see what happens to those poor little “a”s. Our professor jokes that we must exercise our mouths to tone up our speaking muscles for French just as we would exercise our bodies for a sporting event, but it’s true. It’s a completely different way of using our face and tongue and vocal cords.

As my vocabulary improves, my confusion over faux amis lessens. When we got married eight (!) years ago, we wrote our own vows in both French and English. I, not wanting to humiliate myself in front of his family, read them to him before hand to make sure I hadn’t made any huge errors.

Thank God for that.

As I explained that I was so happy to be starting our lives together and excited for our future and that I hoped I could make him as happy as he’d made me (these sappy words were the only ones I could manage with my rudimentary French), he nodded and gave me a wolfish smirk while wiggling his eyebrows.

“I hope so, too,” he said.

“What? What did I say?”

This is how I found out that in French, the word excité is only used in a sexual sense. Turns out I was about to announce, in front of all of our friends and family, that I was horny and hoped I could satisfy him.

When I remember these things, and how far I’ve come, the thought of quitting seems preposterous. A friend recently pointed out to me that I’m an overachiever and I should cut myself some slack. The thing is, too much slack and I get antsy and bored. So I might as well keep on with this French stuff.

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The Results Are In: My French Ain’t Half Bad!

Turns out my French is better than I give myself credit for, at least according to the Alliance Française and the test I took there!

The exam was two sections: the first on computer, which started with very basic French and quickly progressed to complicated phrases and vocabulary. In one of the sections I had to answer questions on women’s hairstyles depicted in basic drawings. I wouldn’t know what those styles were called in English, so I’m pretty sure I bombed the French part! Points were awarded for correct answers and removed for incorrect answers. Intimidating.

For the second section of the test, I spoke with two native speakers. In our first conversation, I had to pretend to be interested in buying a home in the southwest of France. Not so hard to pretend I wanted that house! In the second conversation, I had to convince one of them to give up using her cell phone for 24 hours.

Here are my results:

 

French Placement Test

Here’s how those levels are defined, according to the Wiki article on the CEFR (Common European Framework) for determining language levels:

B2 is Upper Intermediate:

·Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.

·Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.

·Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of

various options.

C1 is Effective Operational Proficiency, or Advanced:

·Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning.

·Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.

·Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.

·Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive        devices.

 While these results mean we can move forward with my nationality application, they also mean that I need to be less self-conscious in speaking French. I’m at a level where I’ve passed those first few huge hurdles of the learning curve, but I am very aware of the many things I haven’t yet mastered, so too often I tend to not speak rather than risk making mistakes. I want to be completely bilingual. To watch a movie without any need of subtitles. To understand song lyrics without help. To not make grammatical errors. To maybe, even, someday teach French. (I need a back up plan. Being a physical therapist is hard on your body!)

These results were just the encouragement I needed, as I’ve been doubting whether French is something I can ever hope to master. This reenergized me, and made me start dreaming again of spending a summer, or two, or three, in France, going to language classes, and of one day being so fluent that maybe I even fool a French person or two.

Lost in Translation: Menus and Restaurants

I see these restaurants in France all the time:

326 Only in France

Because all Asian food is pretty much the same, right? And no, this is not some trendy fusion restaurant. Out of curiousity, I tried one once. It was a bland, fast food type of cuisine that amounted to soggy vegetables and meat bathed in either soy or teriyaki sauce. Nothing like the widely varied and often spicy dishes that could be offered from any of these countries. For a country so renowned for its food, France has a lot to learn about the cuisine offered outside its own borders!

Poorly translated menu items are part of the charm of traveling abroad. We had some classics in China; I lost track of how many times we said, “What the what!?” Here are a few gems:

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Then there was the beachside restaurant in a small Cote d’Azur village where I’m pretty sure they weren’t really serving “wolf” and where I decided to avoid the “crusty of salmon” altogether.

Here, in the U.S., we find plenty of mistakes. There’s the most obvious: the use of the word “entrée.” It means the first course, entering the meal if you will. But in the U.S. we almost always use it for the list of main dishes. Then there’s a restaurant near us called “La Café.” Decent food, but my husband gets a nervous tick every time we pass it because “café” is masculine, so it should be “Le Café.” Gender mistakes don’t bother Americans much because we don’t use them. But imagine the irritation that those of us grammar lovers experience when someone uses a double negative: “I don’t have no bread,” and you can see how my husband must feel.

At a nice, upscale San Diego restaurant my husband ordered the bouillabaisse. He used the French pronunciation, boo-ya-bais, or for the phonetically inclined: [bujabes]. The waitress asked him to repeat himself several times, then exclaimed:

“Oh! You mean the bool-a-bass-ey!”

Yes. That’s it exactly.

It can be a challenge, trying to order a croissant or any other French food here. My tongue wants to use the French pronunciation, but then I get looked at either in confusion, or I get a big eye roll because clearly, I’m being pretentious. Using the American pronunciation ensures that I will be understood, but it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

I’d love other examples people have experienced with menu items that got lost in translation. Bring them on!

French Nationality, and More Bretagne

 

My husband and I are working on getting my French citizenship. Surprise: there are many complicated steps to the process and the instructions are difficult to decipher. At times, the steps seem convoluted simply for the sake of being difficult. So we emailed the man in charge at the local embassy. He will only communicate via email; he will not accept phone calls or appointments. In our email, we tried to clarify a few points we were confused on after our research on their website. He sent us a form letter back, politely inviting us to refer to their website for answers to our questions.

 

Oh, the French.

 

Today, I go to the Alliance Française to take an exam that will determine if my French is at a level adequate enough to become a citizen. Will I be worthy?

 

The hope is that if I am a citizen, our family can easily go to France for extended periods during which I can work there, and that all of us will have the right to move freely, or stay, in France and Western Europe. Plus, I think it would be really cool to have dual citizenship.

 

So, I’ll post some more photos of my beloved Bretagne, and then get back to the stack of paperwork that is French bureaucracy at its finest!

One of the great things about traveling in Bretagne, especially when you get away from the bigger cities like Nantes or Rennes, is that much of Bretagne is visited mainly by French tourists, if at all. It’s off the beaten path enough that it remains more authentic, untouched.

 

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Sunset at low tide

Sunset at low tide

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

St. Cado, one of the most photographed homes, because the tide isolates it

One of the most photographed homes in St Cado because the tide isolates it

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Benodet

Benodet

Concarneau

Concarneau

German bunker from WWII

German bunker from WWII

Hay! Hey! (That's for my brother)

Hay! Hey! (That’s for my brother)

Fresh caught oysters

Fresh caught oysters

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

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Mmmm

Mmmm

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Catch of the day at the outdoor market

Catch of the day at the outdoor market in Locmariaquer

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Papillon

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One of my daughter’s first French words was papillon, or butterfly. In her small toddler voice she carefully enunciated each syllable: pa-pi-llon. She would start high, with the first syllable, then descend down the scale as she spoke the rest of the word, like she was singing. We found any excuse we could to get her to say papillon; whether it was showing her a photo, a video, or saying it ourselves, we turned her into a performance monkey.

She still loves butterflies and last weekend we went to the Butterfly Jungle at Safari Park. The long line to get in: worth it. Walking into that aviary filled with fluttering multi-hued butterflies is a magical experience, especially for kids.

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This beauty landed on my hand and stayed for a while:

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Friendly butterflies! Everyone wanted a picture of this guy and his new friend:

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Vole, vole, vole papillon

Au-dessus de mon village

Vole, vole, vole papillon

Au-dessus de ma maison

-Comptine française

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Would You Like Pepperoni on That?

Pizza in the south of France

Pizza in the south of France

According to my husband, the true test of language proficiency is whether or not you can order a pizza over the phone.

We’ve all been there. Room full of friends, maybe studying together, watching a game, or just hanging out. People get hungry. Someone suggests ordering a pizza. One person shouts out, “Mushrooms!” and another, “Pepperoni!” while a third person says, “I’m a vegetarian. No meat!”

As anyone who has tried to learn a second language can attest, when more than one person speaks at a time, conversation becomes tangled and it can be impossible to comb it out and discern what’s being said.

Then there’s the phone call. It’s hard enough to understand your non-native tongue in person, let alone over the phone. Add to that the fact that the person working at the pizza place is often foreign as well. So, two people are trying to communicate with each other in their non-native language over the phone. For my husband here in southern California, that means a French guy talking to a native Spanish speaker in English. For me in France, I often found myself talking to north Africans whose native tongue was Arabic. Chances are you’re using a cell phone, too, which despite our advances in technology still can’t compete with a landline in terms of quality.

My husband describes it this way:

“The trouble starts when they ask for your phone number. In French, we always say: eighty-five, nineteen, etc. In the U.S., phone numbers are stated one digit at a time. So the person on the other end of the line ends up confused. I’m trying to understand what the pizza guy is saying while everyone in the room is shouting their likes, dislikes, what size pizza, etc. I have to ask the pizza guy to repeat everything three or four times and now he’s annoyed. People keep yelling out ingredients. The pizza guy asks if we want pepperoni. I heard someone say they were vegetarian. But pepperoni, that must be the same as the Italian word: peperoni, which is a type of pepper. That’s not meat, right? So I say, ‘Yes, pepperoni.’”

Miraculously, the pizza arrives. And it’s not the pizza that anyone wanted.

Vieux Antibes

Vieux Antibes

I had a similar experience in Antibes, the south of France. My friends decided that my French was the best among us, so I should order the pizza. We knew of one place that delivered.  We’d been there in person before to order and hadn’t had the most… positive experience with the guy there. So, crossing my fingers in hopes that someone other than the guy we’d dealt with would answer the call, I dialed the pizza place. Mr. Personality answered. His Arabic accent was thick and he had a short fuse. I did my best, ordered two pizzas, one “Reine” (olives, mushrooms, and prosciutto) for my friend and I to split, and a second pizza covered in meat for our other friend (she was 8 months pregnant, adorable, and ravenous).

Then we waited. And waited. He finally showed up. With one pizza. It wasn’t either of the pizzas we’d ordered. He also claimed he had no change. We argued with him. This isn’t what we ordered! Why would you come here without any change? He became irate and insistent that the mistakes were ours and not his. My pregnant friend was about to pass out from hunger, so we took the pizza and he took a hefty tip.

We never ordered pizza from his store again. Pity, they made good pizza. Thin, crispy crust, flavorful cheese, fresh toppings…. The south of France has the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, outside of Italy. Even when they get the order wrong.

Ordering food in a foreign language is an adventurous undertaking. Even something that seems as simple as pizza. The day I can confidently order a pizza over the phone in France, I’m popping open a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Now I’m hungry.

Happy Spring! Here's me in a lavender field in the south of France.

Happy Spring! Here’s me in a lavender field in the south of France.

 

Merde

Often, when we learn a new language, the first words we learn are the swear words. This was true for me with Spanish – as a kid, when my dad worked on the family car, I learned all sorts of fantastic Spanish words. Perhaps he believed that if he swore in a different language, his impressionable little ones wouldn’t pick up on it.

Oh, but we did.

With French, though, it was different. I began studying French when I was 28 with the sweetest, most patient French professor ever. (Madame Loiseau – merci pour tout!) I didn’t give much thought to enriching my vocabulary in that direction; I needed to say “hello” and “goodbye” and “sorry about that, I’m a huge klutz.”

A year later, while living in Paris and attending a French immersion program, I spent mornings before school watching Inside the Actors’ Studio, broadcast in English with French subtitles. The host, James Lipton, always wrapped up the show by asking each actor he was interviewing the same five questions, one of which was, “What is your favorite curse word?”

Thus, I learned the good stuff.

The funny thing, though, is it all sounds like nonsense to me. A lot of these words have no direct translation, and since I don’t always know the connotation and I’m not used to hearing them used, I don’t have a good feel for how vulgar or tame they really are. Merde, for example, is somewhere on the scale between “crap” and “shit.” A kid will get in trouble for saying it, but an adult throwing it into normal conversation, even in a French class, will at most garner a few giggles. The word putain is listed in my French/English dictionary as “whore” or “goddam” or “bloody” if you’re British. But actually it’s France’s equivalent of the “f” word.

Enter my brother-in-law. I adore my brother-in-law. But sometimes, when he talks, I wonder if I really do speak French at all. He uses so many colloquialisms and slang words, plus he mumbles, so I can hardly follow what he’s saying. And – he’s got a potty mouth.

I learned some new words from him on a trip to France a few years ago. A woman walked off the train with his suitcase when he came from Lyon to Antibes to visit us one weekend.  Several hours later, she called him to let him know about the “mix-up.”  When he hung up his phone, he said, or rather yelled, “Grosse Conne!”  Literally, it translates to “huge idiot.”  No big deal, right?

Back in Paris a few weeks later, we were joking with my brother-in-law about the incident, and I mimicked the way he had yelled at his closed cell phone. I didn’t quite yell it, but I said it loud enough that my mother-in-law came running into the room in a state of panic and cried, “C’est Carol? Ce n’est pas possible!” (“Was that Carol?  It couldn’t be!”)  I suddenly felt like I was a misbehaving twelve-year-old. So I did what any twelve-year-old would do: I blamed it on someone else. “He taught it to me.” Turns out grosse conne is quite a bit more vulgar than “huge idiot.” Which is impossible to know unless you spend time around native speakers and embarrass yourself several times. I try to take the safe route – I want to know these words and phrases so I can tell if I’m being insulted, but I tend to not say them.

Except for merde. I like that one.

[Full Disclosure: This was originally published on my author website in 2008]