Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What's that you're saying?


It's like the French -- to steal further from the old Steve Martin bit -- have a different word for everything.

Before our trip Michelle and I brushed up a bit on our Italian and it really helped. We both knew a little already, and after a couple of months of using the computer software, listening to the "Phrase-a-Day" podcasts and drilling each other with the flash cards, we were starting to feel comfortable with the language. Far from fluent, but definitely able to pick out a few important words in a conversation and to make ourselves understood.

Plus the Italians are famously generous toward any lame attempt to speak their language. Stammer something practically insensible with your thick American accent -- "I has well coffee!" -- and people will stop and applaud with wonder. My God, you speak beautiful Italian! Michelle, especially, was complimented all the time.

In Paris, different story.

Michelle had a couple years of high school or college French but she didn't do any review at all, and I've never been able to speak or read a word. All those extra vowels and x's and silent letters. ... I get nervous asking for a croissant, and that's here in Seattle. I also had this notion that French people were snooty and unforgiving about stupid Americans' ignorance of their beautiful language.

Gauche -- that's a French word, right?, and the one I can pronounce! -- that's how I figured I'd feel every time I opened my mouth. On that much, I was right.

On our first night in Paris, after getting checked into our hotel we decided to walk around our awesome Latin Quarter neighborhood (that's the 5th Arrondissement, don't ask me how to say it), and look for something to eat. We settled on a nice looking fish place called La Criee. From the moment we walked in I was lost. The staff didn't speak any English, Michelle's brave attempts at French weren't being understood and there was only one word on the menu, "vin," about which I could make a reasonable guess. We ended up pointing to a couple of things and hoping. I ended up with a platter with two whole trout-sized fish laid out, heads, tails, bones all in place, no side dishes or other attempts at presentation.

Who knows, maybe deux carcasses is a French delicacy and La Criee is the new Ritz, but it didn't really do it for me. Michelle ate her meal and helped with mine and claimed to like it. It must be me, I thought, a big American baby, but for the rest of the trip I referred to that place as "The Crying Fish."

The people at The Crying Fish were nice, we just had a language barrier. OK, no prob. The next day, we tried a little cafe on the main boulevard in the neighborhood, a prime tourist area, and asked in Michelle's game but broken French for a table. The host literally looked down his nose at us.

"Oh," he said, "I can see we're going to need the English menus."

How do you say "what a dick" in French?

A proposito (that's Italian for "by they way"), I found that French people even clear their throats in French. The first time I noticed it was on a bus one day when a middle-aged man in a business suit and hat cleared his throat. Instead of something like "ahem," imagine Pepe le Pew laying on a thick "hnn-hnn-hnn-HUHHHNNN." It was awesome, and I heard others doing the same thing on the street; I've been clearing my throat that way ever since.

All of this, by the way (class: in Italiano?) isn't meant to disparage the Parisians or belittle our time there, which I loved. If anything, the language snootiness loosened me up. I'm not going to please anyone anyway, I figured, so why sweat it. I'm just saying.

And anyway, by the end of our short week in Paris I was able to say good morning and order my favorite breakfast treat, a pain aux raisin -- "pan ah ray-zahn," was my approximation -- and get served too. Tasty, in any language.

Bonjour.

13 comments:

freda said...

It's a good thing I'm home alone, because you had me snorting with laughter, visualizing pepe le pew haw hawing, oh dear, let me wipe off the tears. I'm so glad you are back, I just love this blog.

freda said...

I remember the first time I had fish in France. I was living with a French family in Marseille, we all had a fish, head, tail, etc. I very carefully ate my fish, using my knife and fork(very English, found very interesting by the French). When I finally finished and laid down my utensils, I still had the head, tail,and all bones left on my plate. I looked over to the plate of the father, all that was left were two eyeballs, he had eaten everything else. by the way, you were probably in a restaurant where you order each course separately, you probably just ordered the entre.

Mark said...

He was probably saving the eyeballs for dessert. Freda, where were you when we needed you?

Val said...

5eme Arrondissement == 'SAN-kee-am ah-RON-dees-mahn', more-or-less.

BTW, I like the fish eyeballs. But they're an appetizer, not dessert!

I have to say I'm not surprised at the snooty treatment. The French -- especially the Parisians -- deserve their reputation. I'd even say they go out of their way to reinforce it, but on second thought, no, I don't think they have to work at it at all -- it's just what comes naturally.

(and, re Michelle constantly being praised for her Italian -- even odds someone was hitting on her ;-)

mich said...

Wow, all you people are so smart about French. I'm like my Roseburg-raised brother: a doofus when it comes to this language and culture. I'm glad to know we can survive and even enjoy the place; I'd still love to make the trip sometime myself. Thanks for the funny post!

mich said...

P.S. Is it dufus? What language is that anyway? I'm going back to my wine now.

Rita said...

No wonder I missed this crazy blog!

I'm with you, Mark - but then what's not to love about a Big American Baby in Paris.
I don't think I'll ever look another fish in the eye.

Is the plural of doofus/dufus dufi?

Mark said...

In Paris it's dufois.

Rita said...

Start the day with a chuckle...
End the day with a chuckle...
Can't get much better than that.

freda said...

purodufois, that's funny.

What language is dufus? I believe it must be an actual American word, I never heard it in England or anywhere but here.

freda said...

that was supposed to be 'dufois, that's funny', I don't know where the 'puro' came from

mich said...

Turns out my first spelling of doofus was right, according to Merriam-Webster. But the best part of this entry: It claims the word was born the same year Mark was! Ha!

doofus

Main Entry:
doo·fus
Pronunciation:
\ˈdü-fəs, -fis\
Function:
noun
Inflected Form(s):
plural doo·fus·es \-fə-siz\
Etymology:
perhaps alteration of 1goof
Date:
1960
slang : a stupid, incompetent, or foolish person

Mark said...

That cracks me up. So I might not have been the world's first doofus, but there weren't too many before me.