My French Hubby Meets My Cowboy Cousins

The old and the new at the ranch

The old and the new at the ranch

I come from cowboy stock. The real deal. Cattle ranchers, living in a beautiful bit of wilderness at the Arizona-New Mexico border. The ranch has been in my family since 1891. My grandmother was raised there; her mother rode a horse the 27 miles out of the canyon to get to a hospital for my grandmother’s birth, her first of five children. (They opted for home births after that trip!) To get to the ranch now, we ease our 4 wheel drive down the gravel switchbacks, cross the river a couple times if it’s low enough and if not, ditch the car and call my family to come get us in the tractor.

Today, my dad’s cousin runs the ranch. In his soft-spoken drawl, he tells us the ranch belongs to all of us, it’s just his watch. Though I’ve never lived there, there’s a part of me that is connected forever to WY Bar ranch on the Blue.

It took far too long to take my husband on the long trip to the Blue (the town – which consists of not much more than a one room schoolhouse – is Blue, named for the river/creek that runs through it, but we’ve always said, “the Blue” or “on the Blue”). Coming from Paris, he was fascinated at the thought of meeting real cowboys and seeing an honest-to-goodness cattle ranch. When we finally made the trek, he stared out the window in silence, murmuring from time to time, “Wow. This is beautiful.”

We sat up late into the night talking with my aunt and uncle (really my “uncle” is my dad’s cousin and my first cousin once removed, but we call him “Uncle”), eating meat and potatoes and drinking stiff Hot Toddys. The state cattle inspector came by to check on how things were going, make sure no cattle had been lost to wild animals or accidents, make sure all was well. He sat down to chat with us.

After three words from my husband’s mouth, his face contorted and he leaned forward, staring at my husband.

“Where you from?”

“I’m from Paris.”

“Huh?” He turned to me, perplexed. He couldn’t understand my husband’s accent, which isn’t really all that thick.

“Paris. France,” I said.

“Huh. What’s it like there?”

My husband hesitated, unsure how to answer. “Um, well, Paris is a big, really old city. The country is a lot of rolling hills, rivers, there’s lots of little villages, nothing like this here – ”

“You got cows there?”

“Yes. There are cows.”

The inspector nodded and seemed satisfied.

257 Bro's pics of Jim's memorialOne night we gathered around a campfire, listening to my cousins and their friends tell stories of their different cowboy adventures, drinking beer. It was 17 degrees out, so we pressed as close as we could to the fire. When we all turned to warm our freezing backs, one of the friends drawled:

“We’re all warmin’ our buns, but Stéphane there, he’s warmin’ his croy-sants.”

My husband said he felt like he’d stepped into a movie, into a world and lives he hadn’t known existed.

My uncle listens to my cousins and me tell tales of wandering the planet, of our adventures exploring various European cities, living abroad, trekking through South America, and he smiles and shakes his head, then says in his soft drawl, “It’s just so neat how y’all get out and see the world. Between y’all, you’ve been just ‘bout everywhere. Me, I just about never been on an airplane. I don’t much like being away from home.” It’s so different from the life I know, and I love him all the more for it. I know a little bit about a lot of different places and I pat myself on the back and feel so worldly. My uncle will laugh and call himself a hick, but to me, he’s classic America. He’s got his home on the range, he works hard from dawn to dusk and then some, he knows every craggy cliff, every stone, every stretch and bend of the Blue River. He loves his life, his home, his country. There’s poetry to that.

I envy him sometimes, to which I’m sure he’d scoff. I forever battle between searching out adventures, jumping into all the unknowns I can find, versus the desire to find a place I can set down some roots and truly feel I belong; to find that which eludes me: the feeling of yes, I am home. My cowboy cousins, they know where they want to be. They have generations of history behind them, rooted to Blue, AZ. They are Home, and they live it, breathe it, love it.

My wanderlust must come from my grandmother, the same one who was raised on the ranch. gmagpacalShe and my grandfather lived all over the world: Chile, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Kuwait, Denmark…. Her home was decorated with Persian rugs, African Tribal masks, blue and white Danish dishes. She introduced me to eating croissants for breakfast. She would have loved to meet my husband. I wish I could talk to her now – about her adventures both growing up on an isolated ranch and then as the worldly woman who smiled so broadly in those photos taken around the globe. From cowgirl to world traveler. What an adventure.

I look forward to taking my kids to the ranch and letting them wade in the river, run through the forest, meet my dear family. It’s as much a part of their heritage as is France.

Overlooking the ranch

Overlooking the ranch

Please Forgive Me, I’m an Anglophone

How is this for an ego crusher: as I was reading a poem by Verlaine in preparation for my French class, my daughter said, “Stop Mommy! You’re hurting my ears!” then clapped her hands over her ears to emphasize her point.

Ouch.

I’m telling myself that she wanted a quiet breakfast rather than my French being so abominable that even a two-year-old couldn’t take it. But still.

From my first words, usually “bonjour”, I have an accent. My husband assures me it’s a cute accent, but I’m self conscious about it. My French class is causing me to second guess everything I thought I knew about how French words are pronounced. I’ve decided that’s a good thing – I’m tearing out my bad habits and rebuilding with better fundamentals.

In France, the locals know I’m foreign, but often they don’t recognize that I’m American because my accent is less obvious. One of my most memorable experiences happened when I was studying in Paris. I traveled to Strasbourg one weekend to visit some friends and we went to a huge party where I was hit on repeatedly by French men of varying levels of charm. It was the accent that seemed to draw them to me and I started to feel pretty sexy and charming myself right up until this encounter. A French guy approached me and said something that I didn’t understand, so I said, “Pardon?” My accent immediately made it clear that I was not-from-around-here.

So he switched to English. “Where are you from?”

This was 2004, the height of America-hating, and not 10 minutes before I’d had to endure a diatribe about why Americans suck (from a guy who was simultaneously doing everything he could to get into my pants), so I wasn’t too eager to reveal my origins. Instead, I said, “Paris.”

“No, really, where are you from?”

“I’m from Paris.”

“You look Irish. Are you Irish?”

I shook my head.

“British?”

“No.”

“Scottish?”

“No.”

“Welsh?”

I laughed and shook my head.

He tried a few more English-speaking countries, then finally, exasperated, said, “Well then, where are you from?”

“I’m American.”

“An American girl?” He wrinkled his nose. “Ugh!”

And he walked away from me. Classic.

I don’t know that I’ll ever pass for a local. That ability with a language is a rare gift. I always laugh at movies and TV shows where some spy or official is pretending to be a native, talking in the native tongue, supposedly fooling everyone. It just so rarely happens; our Anglophone tendencies will always creep into our language. It’s a rare and gifted person who can speak a foreign tongue without an accent. My French teacher at SDSU is one of those people, which gives me hope. There’s a fuzzy line between improper pronunciation and simply having an accent. I’m working on it. If only so that my kids don’t make fun of me.

Former Posts about learning French in my family:

Progress in My French Education

Rue, Rit, Roue

French Customer Service

My Daughter Started Preschool

My Daughter Speaks French

French Customer Service

Before you scoff and say there’s no such thing, read on. It’s not the American brand of “the customer is always right,” it’s quite different, and it leaves you feeling tingly. If you’re a girl, that is. Pretty sure guys don’t get this one.

My first experience with it came when I was a fresh-out-of-college backpacker in Paris. I’d run out of clean clothes and had nothing left but a short pair of shorts to wear. As a naïve young thing from the deserts of Arizona, I had no idea that wearing shorts in Paris was an affront to civilized society. Especially during a pouring rainstorm. I walked down the streets, becoming more and more self-conscious of the stares I was receiving. I ducked into a pastry shop in search of my new favorite treat: a croissant. There, I was greeted by the incredulous stare of the shop’s owner.

“You are walking around like this in the rain?” he said in English; making the obvious assumption that I was Not-From-Around-Here. He pointed to my shorts.

I said, face flaming in embarrassment, “It’s not that cold out.”

He offered a smile and nodded. “Well, yes.  And I suppose with legs like that, you can get away with shorts like that anywhere. With legs like that, you should wear shorts.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.

I bought a couple of croissants, and a quiche. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d just been subjected to (or bamboozled by) my first round of French customer service.

Years later, I was in France with my husband, spending Christmas and New Year’s with his family. I came down with a horrible cold – every orifice on my face was stopped up. We popped into a pharmacy on the Champs Elysees and I instructed my husband to let me do the talking as I needed to practice my French. He agreed and stood behind me while I approached the counter.

A young male pharmacist stepped forward and I described my symptoms and asked for his suggestions.

He glanced at my husband and smiled at me. “You are so sick, yet you still have a beautiful smile on your face.”

He pulled out some decongestants and fever reducers and advised me on dosage and what to expect. He also counseled me on nutrition, fluid intake, and to go to the doctor if my symptoms did not get better in a few days. (Side note: this is typical of a French pharmacist; they have a much greater degree of autonomy, and often usurp the need to go to a doctor for many of the more common ailments people encounter.)

All of this he delivered to me intersperced with a smile here, an arched eyebrow there, a compliment on my French and my accent, and another compliment on my smile. My husband, true to his word, allowed me to complete the transaction without interfering. As we left, he smirked at me.

“He was completely flirting with you!”

“Was he? That’s kind of funny.”

“I think he assumed I didn’t speak French, since you were talking and you’re obviously foreign. He thought he could get away with it.”

I smiled, feeling a little smug that I could still entice some flirting, even with a ring on my finger and a few crinkles around my eyes. On a recent trip to Trader Joes in the eternally youth-obsessed southern California that I call home, I watched as a young cashier joked and flirted with the two college girls in front of me. As I pushed my cart up for my turn, I smiled genially, expecting the same treatment. Instead, his face grew serious, and he said politely, “How you doing tonight, ma’am.”

Ma’am?

Ma’am!

I’m thirty-incoherent mumble, for crying out loud! And I’ve been relegated to ma’am status? But in France – I’ve hardly reached my prime.

On another trip to Paris, I decided I wanted to get flowers for my mother-in-law. I entered a flower shop behind a stooped older woman. The shopkeeper, dark hair flowing to his broad shoulders like a hero from the cover of some bodice-ripper novel, came out and pressed his palms together, looking back and forth between me and the older woman and said, “which of you beauties can I help first today?”

We both smiled, and I indicated that the older woman had arrived first. He turned to her and proceeded to compliment her lovely scarf and then the flowers she had selected. He took his time to wrap them in three layers of different colored but complimentary tissue paper, and then finished it off by tying ribbons around it with a flourish. He tossed her one more compliment and she left with a smile.

He turned to my husband and I, and then spoke to my husband. “If I had a woman like that, I would buy her flowers, too.” My husband rolled his eyes at me, and I smiled and told the shopkeeper that we were actually there to buy flowers for my mother-in-law. He clapped his hands together. “Oh, what a beautiful daughter-in-law you are! So nice. And a great accent. Where are you from?”  We chatted, or he chatted me up, while he put our arrangement together. While we spoke, a mother pushing a stroller entered the shop. He called to her that he would be with her in a moment, then returned his full attention to me and my flowers. He took his time with our arrangement, and when he was done he handed it to me with a wink and a smile.

As we left, I heard him say to the mother, “I saved you for last so I could be alone with you!” It was so over the top that this normally cringe-worthy comment came out sounding charming and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

Even though, at this point, I knew the flirting was all part of the game – all part of French customer service – as I left, I felt a little lighter on my feet, and my skin felt warm all over. I was a beautiful woman and a beautiful daughter-in-law. That shopkeeper made my day. And next time I need flowers in Paris, I’ll go straight to his shop. He’s found a customer for life. If that’s not the result of excellent customer service, then I don’t know what is.

My Daughter Speaks French

 It’s strange, in a good way, to hear my daughter speaking in a foreign tongue. After surveying other bilingual families and doing a bit of research, we decided that the best approach would be one-parent-one-language. So my husband speaks to our munchkins in French and I speak to them in English. I do throw the occasional French song or French book in there from time to time.

Her first French word was “papillon,” which is butterfly. She said it with such a cute intonation that we went overboard pointing out every butterfly just so we could hear her say it. With her first words, her pronunciation was already better than mine. The French word for bear is ours (sounds like: oors), and while typically the “s” at the end of a French word is silent, it isn’t in this one. So when my daughter pronounced it, I looked to my husband and asked, “It’s ‘oor’ not ‘oors’, right?” He gave me a sympathetic smile. “No. She’s got it right. Not you.”

Well then.

When she was eighteen months old, I realized that her newbie brain had already begun to separate the two languages. She pointed to a toy car and said, “voiture.” I knew that she knew the word in English, so I said to her: “Yes, it’s ‘voiture’ in French. What is that called in English?” She answered, without hesitation, “car.” Thus began a fascinating game for me of pointing things out to her and asking for the French word and the English word. She does confuse things occasionally, like applying English grammar rules to French. It’s an amazing insight into how a young brain learns a language.

She quickly decided that only my husband could read French books to her, and only I could read English ones. She apparently doesn’t approve of either of our accents. But when she mistakenly handed my dad a French book, he went with it.

A few words on my dad and French. He doesn’t speak it. At all. But he pretends to, with great enthusiasm. Poor kid; as my dad crashed through the words with gusto, using a strange mixture of Spanish and Italian pronunciation complete with wild hand gestures, she first looked confused, then like she was about to cry, then she took the book from Pops and wailed, “Pops no read it! Mommy read it! In English!”

It’s both fascinating and humbling to watch my daughter becoming bilingual. She’ll be able to speak two languages fluently, with no accent. Wow. I can only dream of such a thing. I’m working on my French, now with greater determination, so that my husband and daughter don’t end up with a secret language.

Is My Hubby’s Accent Fading?

I fear it may be. He’s been here nearly 20 years. Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s fading or if I’m just not hearing it any more out of familiarity. Occasionally, one of my American friends will look to me to “translate” for him and scoff at my concerns that his accent has flown back to France. But for every one of those moments, there’s another where a stranger won’t know that he’s French.

It’s a huge bummer. I love French accents. I find them sexy, charming. Say anything tossed with a French accent and the world is instantly tinged with excitement and adventure. Even if the speaker’s grammar is horrible and they are talking about something boring, like cars or lawn care, I still bask in the sound of it all.

When I tell people my husband is French, often they don’t realize I mean that he’s actually from France. “You mean French French? Like from France?” Yeah. The real kind. Not the way I’m “Irish” just because my hair is red and my skin gets pink after 20 seconds in the sun. Americans love to say they are “Italian” or “Irish” or “Mexican,” even though sometimes those roots are so far back that there’s nothing Italian, Irish, or Mexican about them. I get it. We’re all, on some level, searching for our identity. To ground us, connect us.

My husband is really from France. He came across the pond with only a basic grasp of our language. Now, he’s way too good at it. Seriously. The guy almost never trips over grammar issues or spelling, and he often corrects my mistakes. I knew I was marrying a smart man, but I didn’t think it meant that his accent would fade. Not cool.

Most of our French friends aren’t bicultural couples, so the language spoken in their homes is French. Meaning their English is good enough to get through the workday, but not something they’re using all the time. Thus, their accents remain thick and distinctly French. We speak mainly English in our home. My husband’s accent does get stronger when he’s around other French people and/or when he’s drinking. Keeping him drunk all the time isn’t an option, nor is spending every waking moment with the in-laws. So for now, when he asks me, “Am I saying this right?” I just smile and nod, and I don’t tell him the truth. Because that accent is so irresistible.