I supplemented my French learning by taking bi-weekly conversation courses at the Berlitz center in the second floor of the white refurbished 18th century building off the Avenue de St. Cloud down from the château. On all the other days, I set up my own unofficial Let’s Go French! dot-to-dot route through all of Versailles. It looked something like this:
•Drycleaners/Teinturerie: Show lady R’s. pants. Vocab: Melted zipper, stubborn spot, hanger. Ask good shoe repair place? Cordonnerie.
•Shoe Repair/Cordonnerie: Give man D’s brown shoes. Vocab: Dye dark blue. Ask remove Velcro? Add laces? Ask good hardware store? Quincaillerie.
•Hardware store/Quincaillerie: Moroccan man. Vocab: Eyelet. Shoe Laces. Pliers. Power saw. Mouse trap. Bat trap. Ant poison. Word for flood:Inundation.
And so on. For months. I filled many notebooks. I’d make my literal or mental notes while interviewing people in the street or in their shops. It was my pattern in France the way interviewing Britt and Anna and Bente and Idar had been my pattern in Norway. As long as I began with a tumble of apologies, (which, believe me, I really felt), for the fact that I didn’t speak French, for the fact that I was born and raised in the wrong country with the wrong language to begin with, then the way was paved to free French tutoring. I walked flat-footed all over their Français, I’m afraid, and spoke flat-tongued all over their sacred ground, but as long as I was polite, deferent and curious, they were polite, delightful and even extravagantly complimentary.
You’ve seen examples of the opposite of this, I’ll bet. Cases where you are in some foreign country (like, say, France), and someone, a foreigner to that country, foreign like you, marches into, oh, let’s say into a McDonald’s, stares down the thin girl with a brow piercing standing behind the counter, slaps his hands together, licks his lips, then opens up rapid fire like this:
“Hey, hi, okay-ah, so me and my buddies’ll have two Big Macs with three extra large fries and four large Cokes, a double cheeseburger on the side and while you’re at it back there sunshine, why dontcha just toss in a coupla milkshakes?”
The Foreigner smiles at the girl, smiles in a very friendly way, rubs his hands together, eyebrows raised in expectation. He waits. He waits for her answer, which, I suppose, he imagines is gong to come sailing back to him in his language.
But she’s still just standing there.
She stands there, the girl, flaccid as a refrigerated fry. Then she lifts up one unpierced brow as if to say, “Quoi?”
The Foreigner repeats the whole monologue, this time much louder, a bit slower, with full corporeal involvement, while pointing to the panel above and behind Counter Girl’s head. He turns back and chuckles to his buddies (Will you get this chick?), then he stops for a moment to just let his last rendition sink in. Then he adds, “And we’ll be needing lotsa them little ketchup thingamajigs. Ten-four?”
Needless to say, someone in line behind The Foreigner (maybe that someone is you), leans forward right about now and suggests that the girl here, well she actually speaks another language, given that this is another country, given that in other countries people often speak languages other than English. This amazing thing: You cross a huge ocean, you get your passport stamped, and lo and behold, the people have their own language.
It ruffles us Foreigners every single time.
Or maybe you’ve seen what I did on a bus in the center of Paris. It was one of those resplendently picturesque late spring days that gives flocks of tourists just the right crystalline sun bouncing off the domes and statues and Seine to take their pictures. The bus was full. The hour was rush. The bus stopped to take on a woman who was, as I cannot forget, wearing cheery yellow sear-sucker clam-diggers and a matching sun hat with a red flower on the brim. She was visibly out of breath and at the end of her rope.
I instinctively moved my bag to make room for her so she could sit right next to me and I could fan her and maybe make soothing conversation, or I could even ask her to hop off this bus with me so I could stroll her around my neighborhood, give her a break, a glass of water and some courage. It can be rather tough to be a tourist in Paris, although that doesn’t seem to deter upwards of eight million of them from coming to the city every year.
She had a map, this one-of-eight-million, which she held crumpled in one hand as she addressed the bus driver. He was a wiry guy with black hair and a moustache and nicotine teeth. I’d been watching the back of his head for a few blocks. He neither hated nor reveled in his job, but I’ll tell you he could have driven all the streets of this entire city with his eyes closed, he was that seasoned.
I wrote just there that the woman addressed the driver. I was wrong. She addressed the entire bus:
“I’m sick and tired of getting on and off, on and off these stupid French buses of yours!” she exhaled, half-laughing, like a stand-up comedienne. “Already been on, what was it? Number eighty-two?” she swung to us as if for an answer, “Then it went the wrong way, then I had to get onto, can’t remember, I think it was sixty-nine?” She was uncrumpling her map by now, trying to smooth it out on her thigh, which she was poising midair while she was grabbing on the pole with the other hand, her sun hat sliding back on her head.
The bus driver folded his arms, watching silently. The whole bus folded their arms, watching silently. My anticipatory smile kind of melted right then, I have to say, into flat but pained unease. She kept at it in a steady stream, “This system of yours is so wacked up, buddy. You just gotta help me out here. Where the devil’s the Eiffel Tower? I’m losing my mind, I’m telling you. Losin’ it!”
There was this pause. All I heard was the sound of his poor woman’s eyes stretching wider and the bus driver’s mind winding up for a fastball. Then, in one placid movement, he put the bus in park and pulled on the emergency brake, turning deliberately in his seat to face the woman straight on. And in the most even-tempered, well-aimed, machine-gun like French ever spoken on a public bus or elsewhere in the world, this bus driver said something almost exactly like this:
“Madame. You have climbed on my bus. This is a French bus, a bus in Paris, France. I am a Frenchman. From Paris, the city with the marvelous Eiffel Tower, which you have flown very far, I imagine, to see. In Paris, in France, on my bus, we speak French. We do not speak English. We have our own borders, which you’ve crossed, and our own culture, which you apparently do not respect. If you want to see something else that is very tall but you must insist on speaking English, then you must go to London and see Westminster. Or New York City and see whatever tall thing it is that you see in New York City. And la Tour Eiffel” he said as the woman backed one step away from him, shrinking, “elle est juste là,” and he pointed, arm raised above her head, through the bus window. No more than two blocks away. “You can go by foot, Madame, si vous préférez.”
He was civil. He was smiling. And he held the doors wide open for her.
As you can see, the moment seared itself into my cells. To this day I regret that I didn’t climb off that bus with her and just stroll alongside her to the tower, translating as we went — mistranslating, actually — everything this driver had said. Telling her how much he, too, loathed the wacked up bus system and loathed the folded city maps and loathed that the Eiffel Tower was sometimes, if you happened to be standing on the wrong corner as she had been, hidden behind trees and buildings.
How acutely I regret I did not do that. As it was, I watched her step off and huff away, her yellow sun hat with its red flower getting smaller, receding down the colonnade of leafy shadows along the avenue, the yellow like an awkward smile that one holds in place although the shame is burning, the red like a single piece of oversweet candy. Or a little puncture wound.
Language, if you turn it right, is a critical key to entering any new culture. But in France, as experiences like this taught me, language is the critical key. And that’s why, when you turn the key of French wrong (and I did so more times than my ego can bear recounting), it was a gaffe, you were gauche, and you wanted an over-sized bag to slip over your entire being.
When you did not turn the French key at all, however — if, for instance, you did not have a miniature key like a neat little bonjour greeting, a simple pardonnez-moi key, a key the size of your diary key when you were eleven, that kind of key, hanging there on your language key chain — if you didn’t even try to turn the French key at all, then it was an affront, and yes, you were gauche, and finally, hélas, they unceremoniously directed you off their bus.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.