peaking a language (and I use that word speaking approximatively) in another country is a lot like going to the county fair and throwing a ball at a painted wooden duck. A hit and miss affair. I have a friend, a teacher, who with the utmost willingness, just talks. For me, and many of us, we try to figure out what we want to say first. Well, that does not always go well.
The tricky things after the requisite hello, etc. are called collocations, words that habitually go together. In English, for example, we set the table. In French we put the table. On met la table.
For me the great trial is “on.” You know, on. On the hill. What could be more innocuous?
Something is on the TV. Well, if it’s on top it’s sur. Ok! Like something is on the table. Check. If you are watching the television, the show is on the TV, dans, inside. No! Something is à la télévision. But doesn’t anybody realize that à means to go someplace? I am going to Paris. Je vais à Paris.
It gets worse. Imagine if I say I live on Rabelais Street. Well, in French you say, J’habite dans la rue Ralelais. I picture a house in the middle of the road, don’t you? Still worse. If you want to say the town where you live, you can simply say, “J’habite Paris.” I live Paris. Where is the “in”? They have lost the in. Flat out lost it. Finally, imagine my shock when I heard somebody say, Je vais dans Paname. Paname is not Panama, by the way, but an affectionate name for Paris based on an admiration for the Panama hat. But dans Paname? Inside? Noooo!
Then all the times “in” is just offed, like a criminal in the dark of night. I am in love. Je suis amoureuse. The uninitiated might say, Je suis dans l’amour, thinking this means I am in love.
Regrettably, because this is so far from the French way of saying this, a person will look at you in just a certain way. They move their head slightly from left to right, chin up. Furrowed brow.
You can, of course, embarrass yourself. Once? Oh, no. It was like when I entered puberty, and I got my first bra. (I think it happened in the fifth grade, as we know most things do.) We were at a party with my parents’ friends, all of whom, for some reason, had only boys. My younger sister thought it was time to herald this event. “My sister is wearing a bra,” she announced to the assembled multitude. Cringe.
So off I went to a concert with a French friend who spoke English. And there was a hushed announcement at the beginning of the program. The conductor, we were told in French, had disappeared. I thought, Wow. I wondered if he were one of the disappeared in Latin America. I flashed on the political unrest in Chile and other Latin American countries. “Where did he disappear?” I whispered to my friend. She looked at me: head left to right, chin up. “He died,” she said.
Sexual innuendo mistakes are the worst. I made an appointment with my child’s kindergarten principal. I prepared what I needed to say in my head, but, unfortunately, he was busy when I arrived. I looked out the window, where all my carefully prepared French flew out of my head like so many birds on their migratory route.
“Bonjour, Madame,” he said when he finally greeted me.
“Bonjour, Madame,” I replied.
“Monsieur,” he corrected me.
“Je vous prie de m’excuser,” I said then and he gave me that funny look, head left to right, chin up. Somehow, I could apologize in a pretty fashion, but I hadn’t been able to determine what gender the man had?
Now this may seem fairly innocent, except that my face burned red every time I told that story for a year. The poor man had a nervous breakdown a couple of weeks later, and he had to go to the special establishments reserved for just these breakdowns in the French educational system. I will always wonder if he had sexual identity issues, insecurities which I had inadvertently stumbled upon. This last part is not very funny, but it shows how things can shade from amusing to painful and back for the expat and for all of us, which is also what Waiting for Godot is all about.
For my part, there is a word in French I will never use, which is envy. Envy? Now how could envy get anybody in trouble? Well, I met some new people at a hotel in Paris. To be in (dans) the big city was such a thrill, and I always felt a little insecure, a little hopeful that I would make a good impression. A woman was explaining she had taken a trip to Africa and gone on safari. “I envy you,” I said. “J’ai envie de vous.” I have envy of you. Guess again: I desire you sexually.
Everybody laughed. I was mortified.
Speaking of language, meanwhile, my daughter bravely went off to the local French school down the street. One day she said to me, “Mom, they don’t think I speak very good French.” Well, they, her classmates, were probably right. “What did you not know?” She said they told her she didn’t pronounce McDonald’s right. An American couldn’t pronounce McDonald’s? That’s right. It’s called “MacDoe.” How I laughed. M. Nicolas Chauvin was a Frenchman, and chauvinism was named after him. These kids were five years old and already they knew the ins and outs of gathering all things and holding them tightly to the French breast.
Everything is Illuminated, the novel by Jonathan Foer, uses these efforts to speak another language to comic and symbolic effect. A young American Jew goes in search of his grandfather’s ancestry in the Ukraine. He finds a translator who is pretty much hit or miss as far as collocations go. What does inside out mean exactly? Here’s a clip from the movie.
And Godot? Are you waiting for Godot?!