Learning to Speak French With Grace

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Learning to Speak French With Grace
I was ambling down the aisle of the local Casino (a small supermarche not a gambling establishment), surveying the shelves of confiture. I picked up a glass jar of fig jam that had a particularly distinctive label. I looked at the ingredients. Ah ha! Pure fruit, no preservatives. I called down the aisle to my husband, “Freddy pas de preservatifs!” A man beside me belly-laughed. A woman with a flock of children hurried her family into another aisle. Freddy rolled his eyes and smiled. Okay, so what was the problem? Jam without preservatives? “You basically said, “no condoms,’” Freddy explained at the cashier counter, where the mother of four, now standing behind us, was still eyeing me like a pariah. Preservatif, as it turns out, means condom. When I first married Freddy, I spoke a sort of New Yorkese-French.  Fast, incomplete sentences, enough to get the gist. In New York City, when you want to know where something is, you ask, “Where is…” followed by “Thanks.” The interaction takes 5 – 60 seconds. So in Provence, when asking for directions I’d say, “Ou est le chateau?” or “Where’s the chateau,” a common question.  But I rarely got a response. People looked at me as if I were an abject lesson in ill manners. I have since learned the elaborate format involved in posing a question, which translates into: “Excuse me Madame/Monsieur.” Pause, while you are acknowledged. Then: “I am terribly sorry to bother you but can you please tell me where is the…..” The generous answer is given with a smile. You smile back, say, “Merci et bonne journee” which they, in turn, wish you. Then you say good bye. In the time it takes to ask a question in France, you could order “tuna on a hard roll to go” in New York where merely the beginning of that Q&A format would terrify most passers by. Okay, it’s culture but a culture based on a superiority of language. In 1539 the The Ordonnance of Villers-Cotterêts, passed by Francois I, made French instead of Latin obligatory in all “economic, professional, scientific, technical and cultural domains, and in all the acts of the court and politics.” In 1714, with the Treaty of Rastadt, French became the diplomatic language of the world, never mind the subsequent ratifications. “That which is not clear is not French; that which is not clear is English, Italian, Greek or Latin,” wrote the acclaimed, ironically Italian Antoine Rivarol in the mid 1700s. The French Academy declared that English—in particular American English—”tends to invade the spirits, the writings, the world of the audiovisual.” This fear of linguistic invasion has tempered here, but only slightly. Recently English has become a mandatory course in the public schools; at least one hour of English lessons a week, normally taught by a French person. Freddy’s children (AKA my children) have the advantage, I believe, of learning English at home at the young ages of seven and eight. The motivation for these tutorials is an ability to communicate with Sammy, Romeo and Harold. “The dogs are American,” I remind the children. “They speak English. If you want them to understand you, you have to speak to them in English.” They caught on fast. “Good boy. Good dog. Sit. Up. Come on. No. Yes. I love you, honey. Come and eat. Sit and eat. Poor dog.”(I don’t know where the latter comes in, as these are all gangly rescued hound dogs now living in style in Provence). The children’s favorite phrase is “Let’s go!” which precipitates a noisy and calamitous race to the front door. Meanwhile, after they take their baths, I tell the children to dry off their jambons (hams), when I mean to say jambes (legs).  At bedtime I tell them to put their heads on the cochon (pig) when I mean to say coussin (pillow). Let’s go! Judith Reitman (www.JudithReitman.com) is working on a new book and runs the Expat Club of Provence which offers arts workshops for other bewildered expats. Subscribe for free so you don’t miss an issue & don’t forget to seach our library of 6000+ stories about France travel & Paris events, dining, lodging, shopping, lifestyle news & more. Shop our Amazon.com Boutique for the very latest books, travelers essentials & everything else available at Amazon.com. New items added daily. BonjourParis has been published since 1995 thanks to your support. Search hint: start at the back pages for the most recent stock. Short-cut to our 100 TOP SELLING ITEMS (please wait for widget to load) We recommend hotels we know & which are rated highly by recent past guests: Photos left to right: Hôtel de L’Empereur, 2-star, Paris 7th (Invalides/Eiffel Tower), rated 8.6 of 10 by past Booking.com guests Hôtel Le Relais Saint-Germain, 4-star, Paris 6th (St-Germain-des-Prés), rated 9.1 of 10 by past Booking.com guests La Bastide de Marie 4-star in Ménerbes, Luberon, Provence, rated 8.7 of 10 by past Booking.com guests Be smart!…
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