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If you have any experience with Frenchmen, whether it be as a friend, a boyfriend, or a husband, you may have noticed a common trait in their sense of humor: practical jokes. Frenchmen love playing jokes on people, all with the delightful goal of making you look silly and making them laugh. My Frenchman is no different.
I arrived in Paris last spring ready for my six months abroad (OK, six months has turned into more than a year with no plans of returning, but Paris has a way of doing that to a girl) with a pocketful of French words and a couple of verbs that I could conjugate if I really thought hard. But I had the right attitude. I was going to learn the language and maybe one dreamy day my boyfriend and I would speak in French with the same ease as we spoke in English. A couple of weeks after I arrived, a Saturday morning with his kids at the apartment for the weekend, things suddenly became very hectic. Someone needed to go to the marchÃ©* to buy the staples for the weekend, and he was not going to have the time.
Well, what a perfect opportunity for me! We don’t live in a touristy area of Paris, so the merchants at the marchÃ© don’t need to speak English and they won’t, even if they can. I have to speak French, and loudly at that. When their is a queue* of a dozen impatient Frenchwomen, with a couple of grumpy old men thrown in for good measure, standing behind me at my preferred produce stand, I can’t be shy and timid with my French. Enunciate, and loudly!
So my boyfriend made a list for me, and he even included the correct terminology and articles. “Une botte de radis*”, “un kilo d’asperges*”, “une livre de fraises*”, and so on. He even reminded me that when I ask for “six œufs*”, the ‘f’ is not pronounced, unlike if I were to ask for just one oeuf, another exception that I find ever so amusing. What a nice mec*, you are thinking. My sentiments exactly.
Most of the items on the list were pretty easy: radis, tomates, fraises, avocats*, concombre*. One item I didn’t know though.
“What is a tête de veau?” I ask. “Tête” I understand, and it is between brocoli and scarole* on the list so it must be some type of green something. A head of what, I wonder?
“It’s a type of lettuce,” he responds. /admin/story/story/18024/ “They will know what you are looking for. Just ask for une tête de veau.”
So I grab my bag for faire les courses*, hop on a trottinette*, and head off to the marchÃ© in our quartier*. While I wait my turn in line, I review the list, practice in my head, all of the time, admittedly, getting a little bit nervous. My turn comes up, and I start running through the list with the young man. I only have to repeat a couple of items. I ask for the brocoli, no problem, and then I request the tête de veau. This one doesn’t scare me. All of the sounds in the words are pretty easy for me to pronounce.
“Comment?*” he asks me with an utterly puzzled look on his face.
“Une tête de veau, s’il vous plaît,” I repeat louder and clearer this time. How can he misunderstand me on this one, I wonder?
“Qu’est-ce que vous voulez? What do you want?” he asks me with an even more confused look on his face. It is time for me to resort to pointing. The ladies behind me in line are giving me the strangest looks. I catch up couple of patently-French exhales of frustration. I point to the lettuce. He picks up a head of lettuce, points at it with the other hand and is kind enough to give me the French word for this mysterious lettuce, “Salade. C’est salade,” he tells me. OK, salade. Soorrryyy. I didn’t write the list. Sheesh.
All in all, I thought that my first solo excursion to the marchÃ© wasn’t too bad. I still couldn’t understand why he didn’t understand my tête de veau item, but maybe next time. I pushed my way home with my bag full of goodies. I step in the door and my boyfriend takes the bag from me and starts to unpack.
“You bought the wrong lettuce,” he says. Now I am thinking all kinds of nasty things. What an ungrateful schmuck. No “thank you”, no “how very nice of you”, no “oh, you brave little Anglophone” just, “You bought the wrong lettuce,” followed up an inquisition of just what exactly I asked for and what the merchant said. My pride and my shoulders deflate a bit after having been slightly inflated after returning from a successful mission to the marchÃ©.
His eldest daughter, a kind 13-year-old, hears the commotion and comes in the room. She asks her father what is going on. I didn’t understand much French at this point, but I guess that he basically told her I had screwed up and bought the wrong lettuce. After spending 13 years with her father, she is much wiser to his ways then I am. “La liste, s’il te plaît?” she asks me. She wants to see the list, at which point I present it to her. She reads down the list, lets out a laugh, and tells me, “tête de veau…“she searches for the English words, “C’est une tête de … baby cow.”
I guarantee that if she had not told me, I would have been standing in line the next Saturday asking for the same thing, this time even more adamantly. Needless to say, this was not the first blague* played on me, nor the last.
Marché (m) – market
Queue (f) – line of people
Une botte de radis – a bunch of radishes
Un kilo d’asperges – A kilo of the asparagus
Une livre de fraises – a half of a kilo of strawberries
Œufs (m) – eggs
Mec (m) – guy
Avocat (m) – avocado, but avocat can also be a lawyer. French is a funny language.
Concombre (m) –cucumber
Faire les courses – to go shopping, to run errands
Trottinette (f) – scooter
Quartier (m) – neighborhood
Scarole (f) – escarole
Comment? – Pardon? I didn’t understand.
Blague (f) – a joke or trick