Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"A History of the French Language, As I Know And Fear It: Part One" by Beth

I. The Bad Place
I hated France, the French language and French people. Not like I knew anything about any of them. This early intense animosity was likely fueled by the fact that I had a cousin that went to France as an exchange student and hated it. Not like I trusted her judgment in many matters, but she seemed pretty adamant about the fact that France was worthless and she was the only person I knew that had ever been there. The food was a particular subject of complaint. Examples: They made weird pancakes (crepes, presumably) They didn't have real bread, just weird kinds (no pre-sliced, cottony Wonder Bread, merely those baguette things). The people were snobby and weird. The TV programs were boring and weird. The local teens' manner of dress was ugly and weird... Are you sensing a theme here?
Is it any surprise that when it came time to chose a foreign language at school, I opted for Spanish?
My best friend, Lyn, took French. The hard language. She bravely struggled with it, but abandoned the linguistic ship when a new teacher from West Africa got on board. She couldn't understand a word he said, due to the accent. (Much more on this subject in Part Three)

When I graduated from HS, I got the Spanish Award for being the top student. I studied it at University. I patted myself on the back for knowing a useful language. I went to Peru to do archaeology.
I wouldn't touch French with a ten foot long pole duct-taped to a SECOND ten foot long pole.
So there.

II. True Love
Jean-Pierre is so TALL! I saw him in that anthropology seminar and never guessed he was a citizen of the dreaded, detestable, snobby, and very weird nation. French guys are all short, right? Like Napoleon. Not only was JP tall, he was VERY friendly. We got engaged and he asked me to move to Switzerland. Geneva. Where they speak FRENCH. Ummm- right.

III. French Immersion, Submersion and Drowning
I took my first-ever French lessons in a commercial college in Geneva. The lights in the restrooms were all blue. This made it really hard to touch up one'’s make-up and was pretty strange. Oh no! I'm not even in France yet and the weirdness has begun!! It was only much later that I spoke enough French to understand the explanation: blue light makes it hard to see your veins and shoot up heroin. It expained a lot about some of the students.
My first French teacher there was a painfully elegant fifty-something woman from Lyon. She taught every class in a different impeccably tailored ensemble and coordinating silk scarf. Madame spoke several languages, but refused to speak any of them but French unless it was an absolute emergency. Our definitions of "emergency" were very different. Only that guy apparently in heroin withdrawal out in the hallway one morning qualified. Everything else was dealt with "en Français, s'il vous plait!"
Madame had a tough job. None of us spoke a word of French and we came from all over the world, in various stages of coherency, as you may have gathered. Already knowing Spanish gave me a huge advantage. The two languages, I quickly realized, are very similar. Gasp! Speak Spanish without pronouncing the ending syllable of each word and you are halfway to speaking French. By George, I think she's got it! Maybe this French stuff isn't so bad!
There were the inevitable misunderstandings, of course. For example: Madame was VERY proud of her native city and as soon as we could understand a bit more than "“Where is Jean’s pen?" "“Here is Jean's pen."”, she treated us to a long lecture on the delights of Lyon. I was quite astonished to learn that Lyon is well known for astronomy and Kleenex. Wow! You learn something every day!
Imagine my surprise after class when a fellow student (a girl from Ecuador) told me it was "gastronomie et tissus". Fine food and fabrics. Oh. Well , I guess that makes sense. They don’t usually put those big observatory telescopes in the middle of major urban centers, now that I think about it.
But I soldiered on, reading Tintin and Milou comic books to further aid my progress. I liked that better than my school books that demanded that I repeat phrases like: "Hi! I’m called Abdoulaye Mohammed. I am from Senegal!"
In Tintin comics, you get phrases like: "The dynamite has disappeared!" SO much more useful and entertaining!
The second semester, I had a new teacher, Romaine. She was Swiss and had large blonde hair that occupied much of her time. She lacked Madame's rigor, but made up for it in entertainment value. She liked joking around, but in the end, the joke was on us. She wasn't teaching us French. She was teaching us SWISS! I didn't know it , but my small store of American-accented French was getting infected by a dorky Genevan accent and dorky Genevan words!!! Examples: In real French, the number ninety is "quatre-vingt-dix". In Geneva, it's "nonente". To the French, the latter sounds rather like baby-talk.
In a café in Geneva, you order an overpriced "ristretto". In France, the garçon will look at you like you are a crazed, though perhaps thirsty, axe-murderer if you use this word. What you want is a "café au lait" to perk you up so that you can carry on your busy day of dismembering people! Of course!

Soon to come...........IV. Yet More Humiliation

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