ne of the funniest stories about travel and crimes and not really speaking the language occurred in a bathroom in a small hotel in Italy. A traveler of modest means stood on the closed toilet seat to look out the tiny window to obtain a prisoner’s view of the sea, a postage stamp’s worth of blue. Well, the lid cracked. Preparing himself with his English / Italian dictionary, he promptly went down to the concierge and explained what had happened. He had prepared himself to say there had been an accident upstairs in the bathroom, but no one was hurt. Here is what he said: “There has been a train wreck in the bathroom, but not to worry because no one has been shot.” Happily, the crime was not reported, and the police were not summoned. Ah, the life of the accidental criminal in a foreign country.
Even being the victim of a crime is not easy. Once a man’s wallet was stolen in Paris. The police report stated that la victime, the victim, was at Châtelet-Les Halles when it happened (notoriously pick-pockety). Then the report switched into the pronoun of the person reporting the theft. It was a man, so it would be he, right? Wrong. Because the victim is referred to as la victime, which is a feminine noun, the pronoun has to be, logically, feminine as well. So the male victim becomes la victime and as a pronoun he becomes elle, which means “she,” or in this case, simply the victim. (Yikes)
It is almost a crime to speak French because you will murder the language (ha ha, another crime!) All nouns in French are fraught. You need to get the gender right because other words, such as adjectives, have to correspond to the correct gender. The past tense of the verb also has a nod to the feminine gender when it occurs. La grande table est née en France. You wouldn’t say, the big table was born in France, using the verb this way or even the very idea of a table being born any place, but you get the idea. The “e” at the end of grande and the “e” at the end of né (born) all indicate feminine gender, referring to la table. So if you get a noun wrong in a sentence, everything else goes to hell in a handbasket, the adjectives and the verb conjugations. French is not for the faint of heart.
But your ears train themselves, because you, a speaker of a non-gendered language, are not much help. A French person was once talking about un chanson, a song. But wait. It’s une chanson. A red-letter day!
I always check myself to be sure I don’t mis-remember. Here is a question posed on the all-knowing Internet: “Is chanson masculine or feminine,” someone asked. And the all-knowing Internet replied, “The answer is Masculine. Explanation: It is Masculine because it is ending with “n” and the words are feminine when they end with “e”. Hence, Chanson is masculine. (Aug 29, 2019)”
Guess what? La chanson is still feminine. Many nouns ending with “n” are feminine in French: la nation, la frustration with someone who doesn’t check! Le criminel! Or is it la criminelle? In this case, the answer is solely based on whether you are a man or a woman.
You would think that if you didn’t want to commit a crime, you wouldn’t commit a crime. Ah, but the expat is the one who commits the inadvertent crime. I would like to mention three inadvertent crimes I committed in France. Here’s six minutes of Inspiration from the Pink Panther.
- Once I was driving to my new job, an enrichment program for French kids who were bilingual at the American School of Paris. A journalist, for example, who had been assigned to cover Obama’s campaign in the States, would enroll the children in a regular American school. The children became fluent. The trick was to keep up that fluency when they were back in France, in a French school with their French friends and French parents. The program at the American School gave no grades to the students and was super creative. Talented faculty who remain my dear friends: an illustrator, a director, a costume designer, an art therapist, as well as talented, engaged teachers. Where is the crime in that?
Well, I was driving into the school yard behind a bus. The bus was backing up, and apparently all knew that the buses backed up in a certain spot. All except me, that is. I assumed the bus would wait for me. But no, instead, the bus ran into me. Or as a friend later put it, “I wondered if you were going to hit that bus?” No one was hurt (or shot), and the vehicles were fine, but the driver was going to have to report what happened and pay a fine. I went to see the boss, Laurence Feniou, a brilliant mover and a shaker who ran the program, simply called the Extension program, namely the French extension of the American School. I told her the company would dock the driver’s pay. She called the company and without a by-your-leave announced that I had hit the bus. I did not hit the bus. That was the end of that. (Speaking of gender, Laurence is the feminine of Laurent.)
- Trash collection and recycling are high scrutiny items in Versailles. The recycling days are posted in the French apartment hallway, color-coded so that you know when your neighborhood is due. Tuesday and Thursday. I put the garbage out on a certain Thursday, and it so happened I didn’t have any recycling. I received a registered letter in the mail, explaining that somebody had gone through the garbage, an undoubtedly pleasant task, and that I would receive a fine the next time. (Never throw away mail in the garbage.) My crime was to put out the garbage with the recycling. The recycling was given two days of glory on its own, but this I did not understand. Sure enough, a second registered letter, and this time a fine. Only 20 euros, but still. This is a crime against me, against my privacy, and it’s not inadvertent either.
- The third time I also received a letter in the mail. This letter announced that I had been in an accident, damaging a car in a Versailles neighborhood, and would I please send the necessary insurance information. I was in a what? This “accident” was a complete fabrication. Can you imagine? I had to write a document called an attestation sur l’honneur, a statement on my honor, swearing that I was involved in no accident in Versailles. “How would I not know I was in an accident?” I asked my insurance agent. He didn’t bat an eye.
Crime novels, often figuring policemen, are called polars. Two crime authors, translated into English, are so good. One I read in French because, although it was written in English, it was first published in French. It’s called, Hold Your Breath, China, by Qiu Xiaolong. Terrible pollution, a policeman who is a poet, a lost love, and murder, naturally. In French it’s called Chine, retiens ton souffle. Another author is the Belgian George Simenon who has created Inspector Maigret. One memorable polar of his is the Saint-Fiacre Affair, which takes place in the inspector’s home town. Cultural, atmospheric, and very good. Here’s a clip featuring Maigret in English
This clip is, I would say, a bit British, whereas Maigret is a very French inspector. Here is an hour of a Maigret novel in French where the inspector surprisingly goes to Vichy for a cure.
WARNING: FRENCH ONLY
I love to invent lives for the two characters in Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. Could they be undercover? Or are they on the lam from some run-in with the law? We could actually create a backstory for them. Two novelists, for example, on the run? Please send in any ideas, whether implicating them as criminals or not.