Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Love's Language's Lost

Today's message comes to you from the Bureau of Expert Travel Expertise, where this week's Hot Tip for Travelers to French-Speaking Countries is:


We at the Bureau of Expert Travel Expertise base this on our whole entire three weeks of experience in a French-speaking country, where we have quickly found out that speaking the local language leads to horrible and destructive things, such as confidence. Here is what happens: when you first get really comfortable with your new language, you will suddenly find yourself, without warning, in the crushing death grip of the urge to say "okay" to everything, like this: "D'accord." Only problem with this is, d'accord means okay. It gives French people the impression that you understand what is going on. Whereas in fact:

→ EVER ←

No, instead, you are in the thick of the Gross Over-Confidence Stage of Language Learning. This is a stage in which you THINK you're making sense to everyone around you, when really you sound something like this:

YOU: Fnuh fnuh fnuh fiddle diddle widdle whee hee heee! I was go to the movies. Waka wa waa. Ee-ee oo-oo!
FRENCH PERSON (backing away slightly): Bonne journée.

Now this is not to say your French will not improve. Au contraire. Your French is certain to improve as long as you use it for practical situations. Of course this will never happen, because practical situations involve stress, and there is an old French rule that states, "Stressful situations require English." Take the other night, when, in a bold and rash moment*, I made the decision to do something. As you may know, this is in flagrant violation of another key traveler's rule:


Especially don't do what I did, which was attempt to go out to the suburbs. I was going to see Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost in French. Now this turned out to be one of the most beautiful productions I had ever seen, the kind of theatrical gem you keep in your heart and mind for the rest of your life. This in no way made up for having to get there and back, both of which involved - you guessed it - practical situations. First there was the bus situation. I should preface this by explaining that in New York, there is a certain question one might ask the bus driver without thinking. The question, asked while the bus is moving, goes like this: "Can I get off here?" What it MEANS is, "Can I get off at the next stop?" Not what it was taken to mean HERE, which was (I swear), "Can I leap from this moving bus?" Hence the following authentic transcript of my conversation with the Paris bus driver:

ME: On peut descendre ici? ("Can I get off here?")
DRIVER (after a beat): Non. C'est dangereux, mademoiselle. ("No. It's dangerous, dipwad.")

(The lady next to him then contributed to the occasion by smiling at me in the gentlest, most comforting of manners, clearly to reassure me that no, the leopards would not eat my brain.)

Of course I, frazzled comical foreign traveler, did not put two and two together until perhaps the next day. Instead, I took this to mean that GETTING OFF AT THE NEXT STOP was somehow dangerous, and I was promptly - you guessed it - spirited further and further and further away, into the Deepest Bowels of the Banlieue. By the time I got it into my head to descendre the hell off of there, I was God only knows where, equipped with an arsenal of approximately three remaining French words ("bien sûr" and "Danette," the latter being an excellent local yogurt that makes a world of difference to remember in highly frightening situations).

But naturally my language problem did not stay the same; no, with the passage of just a little time, it became much worse. This happened after the show, which as I have mentioned was wonderful, but in my opinion the night would have been vastly improved had the Earth been hit by an asteroid directly following the curtain call. Instead, it was time to wait for: the navette. This is a French word meaning "shuttle that is your only means of transport back to safety, which is supposed to leave the theatre at an unknown time, which will not occur within your immediate lifespan."** I asked French person after French person where to find the navette, and nobody knew, yet - and here is the bit that sticks with me - all of them were going on it. Yet time and again I had the following exchange:

ME: La navette part d'où? ("Where's the shuttle leaving from?")
FRENCH PERSON: J'ai pas. ("Meh.")

I don't know how we EVER would have connected with the navette if not for the actors from the production, who helpfully trotted out to the lobby about an hour later, consumed a series of rejuvenating beverages, and led everyone else around approximately 2,000,000,000,000,000 corners to some other place, presumably Sweden, where we finally got on the shuttle. From there we went to the Métro, on which I happened to meet and have an extraordinarily broken conversation with one of the actresses from the show. This was a terrific turn of events unless you count the facts that (a) all my three French words were long gone by now and (b) I was traveling in the wrong direction. The actress noticed it before I did, whereupon we had the following conversation:

ACTRESS: Oh, you actually meant to go the other way.
ME: Yes, I too am fond of yogurt.
ACTRESS: No, I said you meant to go the other way.
ME: I knew that.

At which point I lurched comically off the train, narrowly missing falling on my face. It was easily the highlight of the evening.

Now please understand, travelers: this does not mean that in such situations you will always lose your French. No, sometimes you will also lose your English. The other day at school, for instance, I attended a cross-cultural “atelier de conversation." This is a crosscultural activity in which French and American students gather and -- in a brave sociolinguistic effort to partake of one other's languages and cultures -- suppress snickers at each other. Yes, the results are typically imperfect, in that you*** sound like a person with a grave nerve disorder -- yet you will find, if you give it your best, most confident effort, you will sound like a confident person with a grave nerve disorder. I myself sat with a French guy, bluffing my way through French, for an hour before I finally started to feel really fluent. Then it came time for us to switch to English, at which point I realized – surprise! – my English was gone, too. It was really … like … a thing. Or something. Totally.

And yet there is always hope in the end, in that you will always have the words you need AFTER you need them. On which note, I would like to thank my actress acquaintance from the other night, wherever she is; without her help that night, I would most certainly be somewhere around Budapest by now. But it’s important to remember that these sorts of unplanned adventures are all part of the Fun of Traveling! One day, we will look back on such experiences, and we will say fondly to our grandchildren … oh, you know … something.

* This is a moment in which you get a bold rash.
** It is quicker to say "navette."
*** Yes, you personally.

©2010 Nicola McEldowney


The Old Wolf said...

Oh, mais madamoiselle... Nevair forget ze words of ze famous 'Enri 'Iggins... "The French never care what they do, actually,
as long as they pronounce it properly."

Et c'est vrai... I generated more good will in Paris with phrases such as "Pétanquez-moi, monsieur, bourquez-vous à la moulique des surpiquettes? Ah, je suis enseveli de faire entendre!" simply by cultivating my accent.

Tu vois, ma chérie... they're not going to admit that they don't understand you either... ;^)

Veuillez ignorer, chère madamoiselle, mes plus profondes exécrations d'anonymité...

My Discworld said...

I laughed.
So loud.
At this.
Been there, not in France, but been there.
Thanks for the memories.

s45ad446512gd said...


ecafsub said...

omigawd I'm in tears! My poor abdomen, a veteran of countless crunches, punches and kicks, is aching from convulsions and I can feel the death throes of brain cells asphyxiating from lack of O2.

If only I'd had this knowledge March last year when I dared Paris--not the one in Texas. That was even longer ago and is far more hazardous to all Right-Speaking Americans.