Monday, December 12, 2011

Ramblings: Déjà vu all over again

Using foreign languages can be dangerous
"I don’t speak French," my American friend told me. "I’ll come visit you in Paris if you come pick me up in London."
     So I did. And there was no EuroTunnel then. Just two trains and a ferry.
     At the B&B behind Waterloo Station, there was an unpleasant Frenchman who came down to breakfast in his PJs and bathrobe, much to the chagrin of his wife. He refused to sit at his assigned table, although Embarrassed Wife was already buttering her toast there, and he moved them both to what he considered a more suitable table. My friend and I looked on. Later, when we were ready to check out, we found the owner talking to Mr. Horrible through the door, repeating, slowly and loudly, "Are you staying the night?" He kept muttering "Comprends pas" from behind the closed door. After the poor patient woman’s third attempt, I went over to her side and translated, through the door, in accentless French, "Elle veut savoir si vous restez la nuit." After a pregnant pause, the door opened and he excused himself to me, stammering No, he wasn’t. And merci.

I tell you this story only to say that people have trouble with foreign languages. When I reached Paris with a French degree in my pocket, I took a furnished apartment. The only can-opener it had was what military personnel call a John Wayne, one of those little foldable triangles that you’re supposed to be able to clip over a lid and sashay it around until the top opens. Never could get it to work. But I was undaunted. I had a degree in French and there was a quincaillerie, a hardware store, just down my street. The bell tinkled as I went in, the man asked what he could do for me. "I would like... I would like..." Suddenly I realized, with horror, that I knew how to discuss Montaigne’s essays and could dissect the plays of Corneille or the existentialism of Sartre and Camus. But I had no idea what "can-opener" was in French. That hadn’t been part of the curriculum.
     Still only mildly undaunted - I had a college degree in French, didn’t I? - I decided I should just tell him what I wanted it for: to open a can. So I switched gears, smiled and said, "I want to open... I want to open..." And then it became clear that I didn’t know the word for "can". A boîte was made of paper or wood; a bouteille was glass. What was metal? No idea!
     But I knew the word for "peas", so my only option was to swallow my pride and say, "I bought some peas and I want to open them" while miming the appropriate gesture.
     "Ah, un ouvre-boîte!" he exclaimed. And sold me one.
     I’ve never forgotten that word.

     Many people tell me they don’t speak French. They wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did with my hermetically-sealed can.
     And yet... there are a lot of French words running around our English-speaking world. There’s rendez-vous, which means a date or an appointment. There’s RSVP, which people know means you must reply to an invitation... even if they don’t know it means "Répondez s’il vous plaît". You might know a two-income family who has an au pair to take care of their children during the day or someone who was one abroad.
     There are terms of diplomacy, such as détente and entente cordiale, chargé d’affaire and carte blanche. There are military terms such as aide-de-camp, and also esprit de corps, although I think that’s used less nowadays.
     People who are ahead of their time in any field are said to be avant-garde. And you can call someone who tripped over their own feet gauche. If someone doesn’t know which one is the shrimp fork at an elegant dinner and eats with their fingers, you can say they made a faux-pas. If you meet an attractive blonde or brunette, you might say they had a certain je ne sais quoi and send them a billet-doux or maybe a bouquet. Or if you were a historian, you might study coups in foreign countries. Or in earlier times, look for the power behind the throne with a debonnaire cry of "cherchez la femme!" Unless you’re just too blasé, of course.
     In the world of cuisine (itself a French word), the French language is omnipresent. Your meal might be preceded by an apéritif. After that you could order à la carte, meaning anything on the menu, such as potatoes au gratin, if there’s grated cheese on the top. And many people eat their pie à la mode, which doesn’t really mean "with ice cream", but rather "in the fashion of..." Or you might find a roast beef sandwich au jus, which is a term I never heard in France because they don’t use it any more. And you might polish off your meal with some chocolate éclairs.
     If you are very cultivated, and not just a bourgeois, you might have furnished your home with an armoire or a bureau. You might choose to flop into a chaise-longue to nurse your ennui after a hard day at the office studying dossiers submitted by various entrepreneurs. Then you would splash on some eau de Cologne or eau de toilette, slip on your haute couture dress and put your hair up in a chignon and your chauffeur might drive you down your cul-de-sac to the ballet (and yes, that is French) or to a soirée or to the movies to see a cinéma vérité in black-and-white. And when you return home hungry, you might dip into your cache of chocolate bonbons. All of which is very chic.
     Well, I’d better end my chef d’oeuvre there. As you can see, there’s a lot of French running around in the English language. But en garde! I’ve only gotten to the letter "e"!

It works both ways. 
Sometimes you find English inside French, too.


  1. Wonderful entry, as always. I bought a few John Waynes at a Monoprix in France, it's the only type of can-opener that I know how to use. But I accept that it requires a bit of practice...

  2. Salut, Sandy et Simon ... Skilled and suave post, showing your formidable sagacity. As I approach dodder-hood, I still like to say "cowlike terrible." It's silly, but I just love it.
    Oh - and I used to have one of those military ouvre-boîtes too, in Frankreich. I did get it to work, especially when I was really hungry.

  3. I'm really glad those hours are so happy.Good for them!