Bonjour Madame Guthrie. Après 30 ans, je suis à Paris.
God, I hope that’s right, because I finally put my pidgin French to use, following two years of high school French with Mrs. Guthrie and a French minor at college. I’ve forgotten more French than I probably learned over the years, although idiomatic expressions (zut alors!) still stick in my mind.
As best I recollect, it was the fall of 1980 when John Hill and I became the only male students in French class. I distinctly remember one student (I recall who but will never tell) who said that day, in her best Southern accent, “Par-lay voose, fran-says.”
So while looking forward to my first foray to the City of Light, I also was trepidated by my lack of language skills. In Spain, I pushed Marilynn to the front when buying groceries or negotiating train stations because she and Declan knew some Spanish. Here, they would be relying on me, and I’d heard that French people were kinda mean to those who mangle their language.
Use it or lose it
I shouldn’t have worried. First, everyone we dealt with was extremely nice, and even with those who didn’t speak French were amenable to gestures and half phrases on both sides. And in truth, the overwhelming majority of people we ran into spoke better English than I did French.
Still, it was reassuring to request our room key (vingt-huit) and actually get the right one. And to order a huge tea at Starbucks (thé chaud). But, of course (bien sûr), the barista said, “Green tea or black,” and I responded in English without thinking. D-oh!
But it does leave me bemoaning the knowledge I have let go fallow. One of the clerks at the hotel where we stayed was Turkish, we believe, and spoke that language along with English, French, German and Italian. Our friend Béné speaks at least four languages (and as many as six) and also can read hieroglyphs.
Upon our return to the States, I hope to hook up with some conversational French language group to improve my skills. Marilynn and I are encouraging Declan to use the Spanish he’s learned since kindergarten as often as possible. I keep telling him I should either drop him outside any Home Depot in the Atlanta area or help him get a job at Plaza Fiesta, the Latin mall in Atlanta. He wants to work at one of the football jersey shops.
You certainly don’t need to be fluent in the language of the country you’re visiting (I still can’t understand most Scottish people, and they supposedly speak English). But I think Americans, in general, could do a better job at being global citizens by learning a foreign language—present company included.
Writer’s note: I did use Google Translate to get the accent marks right, but I actually do remember more French than I think I do.