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!

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.

 

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.