March 05, 2007

Practically fluent

On our date last night, as we were eating minestrone soup and salad, my husband and I discussed the trip we are taking over spring break, an overseas journey that will include four days in a country where everyone speaks French. When we planned the trip, I assured my husband that I speak French just fine. I may have exaggerated my fluency just a bit, but really, all I need are a few phrases, right?

I have a method. No matter where I am, in a cafe or in a restaurant or at the train station, I just point to someone who has the food or drink or train ticket I want and say, "la meme chose" which means "the same thing." Of course, the word meme has gained such popularity in blogging circles that the phrase has the added bonus of sounding like some kind of secret blogging signal, sort of like a blogger drawing a computer in the sand.

Last time I was in the City Where the Guillotine Was Used, I was traveling with my little sister, Urban Sophisticate. The very first morning, when we were in line to buy our metro passes, I pointed to the man next to me who was buying a pass and said confidently, "La meme chose." My sister was wildly impressed at my fluency. Of course, it wasn't long before she figured out it was just about the only phrase I knew.

See, the problem is that in high school I took Spanish, which doesn't help at all when I am in country where everyone is speaking French. (Well, to be honest, it didn't help me all that much when I visited an island where everyone spoke Spanish, but that's another story. Let's just say native speakers of Spanish talk really, really fast.) Anyhow, I always get French mixed up with Spanish. I'll say things like, "Donde esta la Louvre?" And then there is the weird thing that they do with the verbs, like saying "have" when we would say "am." For example, I was trying to be all sophisticated and worldly on the train when I sat down next to my sister and said in French, "I am hungry." The man next to me gave me such a strange look that I whispered to my sister, "What did I say?"

Well, it turns out that hunger (faim) and woman (femme) are similar sounding words. So instead of saying, "I have hunger," which is what a native speaker would have said, what I had announced to my sister, in the manner of an American, which is to say that I talked to the whole car, was, "I am woman." Which, of course, is perfectly true.

I am actually quite good at reading and writing in languages other than English, but when it comes to speaking and listening: well, let's just say that lovely musical French sounds to me just like a rushing brook. Beautiful to listen to, but I've got no idea what the words say, or even where one word ends and another begins. My husband picks up accents and languages quickly, but he, too, took Spanish in high school and nothing he said last night indicated that he was going to be much help on the trip.

"Let's see," he said, "I know how to say that I have a red pen. I can ask someone to be my friend. I can ask what time it is."

He paused. "That's about it."

Luckily, Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter, who will be traveling with us, has taken five years of French. She seems to think that taking French in high school would not have helped either me or my husband anyhow, since we are both getting pretty old and senile, and high school was more than 25 years ago for us.

Her worry isn't the language barrier: she has reservations about traveling to the Romantic City of Light with her parents in tow. "You two are going to be ditching me all the time to go off and have sex."

"Mais oui," I said to her, "Je suis femme."

Or maybe it's "J'ai faim."

Eh. La meme chose.


Lilian said...

Vous êtes trés amusante, mon amie! :)

I'm LOL here! :)

Fortunately I can speak French, communicate well in Spanish and Italian (both fairly similar to Portuguese), but I was LOST in Country which used to have a hideous wall dividing its capital city and in the city of birth of famous musician who died young (also where Sound of Music was filmed) ;) Pathetic pseudonyms, that's for sure... all to say that German is "Greek" for me :)

Have a great trip!

Anonymous said...

You need Muzzy! I bought the French DVDs for my son to augment the French that he speaks with my dad. I swear, after watching the DVDs a few times, you'll never forget "j'ai faim" because Muzzy says it about a million times.

Have a fantastic time in your trip! My French speaking father is taking his first trip to France this summer.

Lydia said...

hehe, c'est tres amuser.....

French is kind of hard to remember.

have a great time!

Marcia said...

Last time I was in that particular city, they all spoke English. When we would attempt to speak French, the person would inevitably make a little Gallic snort of their nasal and proceed to dress us down in perfect English. It was quite disappointing that I didn't get to use my five years of high school French, though, before I forgot it entirely.

J'espere que vous jouisssiez vos vacances.

(I don't know if that sentence is right at all, lol!)

Mona Buonanotte said...

I had 2 years of high school Spanish, and 9 months of French from my second grade teacher. I always mix the two languages...they're prettier that way.

Aliki2006 said...

Oh, what a wonderful trip that sounds like! I think English is so prevalent everywhere now that you can probably get by with that tried and true phrase of yours!

Yankee, Transferred said...

Ah, oui, jo(e)-passez un bon vacance!

Linda said...

But do you know how to say, "Will you pose nude for my blog?"

Honestly, I come over here because I like your writing, not because I'm particularly interested in the nude pictures. Really.

Liz Miller said...

When I was in that city, no one let me practice my French, because they all wanted to practice their English!

C'est la vie.

Todd said...

I hope you guys have a really great time in City Where "Amelie" Takes Place. Please take a ton of pictures? Thank you! :)

p.s. - I haven't been to Eiffel Tower City yet, but when I do, I'm going to play accordion in one of the Metro tunnels. Le Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Votre billet m’a beaucoup fait rire.
Il n’est pas facile de faire des jeux de mots dans une langue étrangère mais vous y parvenez très bien.
A vous relire bientôt.

Silver Creek Mom said...

SIGH have a wonderful time. Even though I live in a French Province I can just get by and if I was in France I'm sure they would send me packing because my accent is sooo bad that they would be insult.

but for you I will say

Bon Voyage mon Amie!

Chip said...

ah, you must have had spanish teacher with the cool grey streak in her hair... and someday remind me to tell you story about teacher de français dans l'école de la village des voies ferrées...

Have a great trip!

Cass said...

When we were in City with the Big Metal Tower for our honeymoon, we actually ended up using our High School Spanish - we were at a less mainstream tourist attraction (the sewer museum - surprisingly cool) and the info dude spoke French, Spanish, and German. So we got our overview in Spanish. (Thankfully the printed info was available in English.)

BeachMama said...

I am so jealous. It will be wonderful French or no French.

KLee said...

The most important phrases you'll use en francais (without accents or cedillas, because I have no ideas which keys make them....)

Ou est las salle du bain? Where is the bathroom?

Je suis tres fatiguee. I'm very tired.

C'est trop cher! It's too expensive!

I think you'll get along swimmingly. Have a glorious time. Prove your daughter right about ditching her! :)

skatey katie said...

last july, when hubby and i visited The Same Place You Are Going, i had loads of practice: D17 insisted on speaking french to me day and night. my brain was addled even before we got there. but it was kind of helpful...
bonne journee mon amie !!!!!!!!

Psycho Kitty said...

Mais bien sur!
Tu vas faire bien.

Marie said...

Oh you lucky, lucky person. You get to see Smart, Wonderful Beautiful daughter AND Paris with your spouse and you were just down South. I do hope you are counting all your blessings.

If you need an interpreter, just call. My French is fantastic. Which must be why they have me teaching so much Spanish these days.