"A History of the French Language, As I Know And Fear It: Part Two" by Beth
IV. Yet Further Humiliation
The language course ended. We got the great idea that I could now attend the University of Geneva as a grad student in archaeology.
How’s that for delusional?
I won’t go into details, but the initial learning curve on that one was steep. Pretty much vertical. It was only at about the end of November that I started to really understand what was going on in my classes. One of the many things I discovered at this point was that a major research paper had been assigned to each of us at the start of the semester. It was due by spring break. So that’s why everybody around here looks so darn busy al the time! Imagine that.
It was rather a shock, but at least I had finally reached a breakthrough. I could sit in a graduate-level class and understand what was going on!
That’s not to say there still weren’t problems with the basics. There was all that vocabulary to learn. As Steve Martin once said (in outraged tones): “French. It has a different word for EVERYTHING!!!”
On a wide Geneva boulevard lined with linden trees, I was strolling with my non-short, non-snobby, non-weird French fiancé. It was a lovely day. Jean-Pierre was telling me about an acquaintance that had just thrown himself off a building to commit suicide, but had failed and was now a paraplegic. Just the topic for a romantic walk. He spoke in his native language, of course, as part of the effort to improve my command of my decidedly unruly French.
After hearing the story, I bravely prepared a response to keep the conversational ball rolling.
I said "Tant pis"
Jean-Pierre looked over at me with a startled, yet somehow calculating look on his face. I now believe that he was mentally estimating the price of a plane ticket back to the US for me and the probability of getting the engagement ring back.
With amazing fortitude, he rallied.
Patiently, in English, he asked “Beth, what do you think that means?”
“Well-it means what a shame, right? That’s such a sad story. His whole life is ruined because of depression. You know, often it’s a brain chemistry thing. They have drugs for that.... ”
Well, no, actually. "Tant pis" means "Too bad", but not in a nice way. The nuances of meaning include, but are not limited to: tough luck, too bad for him. It’s his own fault, the idiot. Some people. Geez. Get a life.
Trust me, it was NOT an appropriate response.
V. Obscene Vermin, That’s Me!
I learned more French over time and still somehow made mistakes.
Once we were at a posh shop looking at furnishings. Part of it was under construction and it was hard to get at some of the pieces, because of piles of wood and metal beams. The saleswoman was very chic, as all French women are required by law to be. When we’d arrived, she’d given us the standard look that all French salespersons give you: the look that says “Oh look. Cockroaches. But perhaps they are cockroaches with money. Perhaps I will speak to them. Eventually.”
She finally decided to come over and see exactly what species we were.
“May I help you?”
I jumped right in, a tragic act of linguistic hubris on my part. “Yes, thank you. We wanted to look at those tiles over there, but there is rather a mess and we can’t get to them.” The word I used for mess was “bordel”
The saleslady did not smile. In fact, I got the cockroach look again.
Jean-Pierre just looked slightly pained.
She said she’d go check on getting the tile samples and left. I think she was really going for her can of Raid.
"OK. What did I say this time?"
The problem was that "bordel" I threw in there like I knew what I was doing. Actually, it turns out that it is the origin of the word "bordello" in English and means exactly the same thing. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that it is a word that is only used in very casual conversation with friends or by very vulgar, clueless people in other situations.
My dictionary defines the phrase as : "What a goddamned shambles”
As I don’t curse when I speak English (unless my car won’t start), I certainly had no desire to prance around France sounding like I needed my mouth washed out with "savon"!
VII. Mary Poppins Goes Postal
A while after that, I was driving up to the village with a car-full of French pre-schoolers. I was taking Valentine and a few of her sweet little friends to a party! How delightful! They were all very excited and bouncing around as much as their car-seats would permit. I asked them to please settle down. For all the good that did. Next, two of them managed to stretch their seat belts and lean far forward off their booster seats. Their little faces peeked over my armrest.
I was a bit angry, as it was so unsafe and my voice was a bit severe as I said “Sit back right now or you’ll get hurt!”
For get hurt, I used the phrase “Casser la gueule”. Technically, word for word, it means break your face. But all I vaguely remembered was that it meant getting hurt.
Their eyes grew wide. Total silence in the car. The culprits slowly back away.
Then Mattieu, the oldest of the bunch spoke up. “ You said a BAD word! I can’t believe you said that BAD word! I’m going to tell my mommy about that BAD word!”
You guessed it. The dictionary says that the phrase means: To get your face smashed in or to knock somebody’s block off.” It’s not very nice.
My bad, in all senses of the phrase. Imagine it- Beth driving down the lane, shouting vulgarities at tiny children. It’s really not me. If I didn’t start to watch out, French was going to give me a scary new personality, whether I liked it or not.
In Part Three, we’ll head to Africa, where I’ll get even MORE confused. Bet you can’t wait!