I have a strained relationship with the French language, rooted primarily in post-traumatic humiliation disorder, or PTHD. It’s sort of like PTSD, except with a lisp — PthD — which is totally appropriate given my ongoing decimation of French pronunciation.
Let us harken back to the year 1990 when I was a junior in high school. As the new kid, my social strategy included three steps:
- Speak Never
- Make No Eye Contact
- Hope Really Hard for a Friend
It was surprisingly ineffective.
In this emotional abyss, please imagine me (well shaded by the overhang of my gravity-defying, earthquake-proof bangs) in my Advanced Placement English class when the teacher announced we must read aloud.
Read aloud? GAH! Rule One violation! Still, I thought, I’m a good reader. This might be my chance. Someone will notice. Someone who’s been waiting – just biding her time – to find a good reader to be her friend!
That was the day I read the word rendezvous aloud.
I no longer remember the exact book we were reading, although I want to tell you it was the Scarlet Letter since we did read it that year and it was deliciously rendezvous-esque. But I do remember, vividly, the word rendezvous in the middle of the paragraph on the right-hand page and the feel of the paperback book in my hands, cracked open to my doom.
Which is French, of course, and pronounced RON-day-voo.
Except I pronounced it ren-DEZ-vuhs.
Ren-DEZ-vuhs with a hard DEZ in the middle and an us on the end to ensure my mistake was especially obvious.
Those were good times, friends.
Good, good times.
Fast forward with me to the summer of 1997, when I visited France with Rule One firmly in place. Speak Never. This way, I’ll avoid embarrassing myself and my entire country, I thought, and it was a very good plan until I met the Crépe Guy.
All I wanted was a Nutella crépe. That’s it. Just a gargantuan, paper-thin pancake with heaps of gooey chocolate oil sauce. Not a conversation. Not human interaction. Not a language lesson.
But I accidentally looked the Crépe Guy in the eye, and I smiled. He smiled back, and we struck up a conversation in English once he figured out I was tongue-tied in French. He’d lived in New York for a few years and just came home to Paris for good. He was gregarious. He was friendly and personable. He was funny. And after he pulled me out of myself – I broke Rules One and Two, after all – he pushed and prodded and cajoled me to try.
At least try to speak French, he said. It is a beautiful language, and you’re in a beautiful city. Try. He was kind to me and proud of his language and so I confessed.
I’m afraid, I said. I’ll get it wrong. I’ll be humiliated. They’ll laugh.
Oh, yes? he answered with fire in his eyes. People may laugh, but if zay do, I will teach you some French to say. I will teach you zees French, and you will learn it right now. Yes? You will learn zees one bit of French from me?
What could I say? I had to agree.
This is the French he taught me:
If zee people laugh, you must look at zem and say big, “EFF YOU!” And zen you say very sassy, “Pardon my French” and walk away.
He smiled again, and he winked (very sassy) while I laughed and laughed.
The Crépe Guy is still my favourite Parisian, and even though I’ve never said zee big EFF YOU in any city in the world except a few times in my head, he taught me an important lesson: Trying is better than not trying, and you never know what friends you might meet when you look people in zee eye.
We leave today for France, fifteen years older than the last time and hopefully a tiny bit wiser.
P.S. My French, though pathetic, is not entirely absent. I know how to say baguette, crépe, éclair, and croissant. If you know some French words I might use this week, please do share. I’m traveling without a dictionary, hoping I can wing it. Given my previous experience with French, this may not have been the soundest decision. (Help.)