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Living in a foreign language can turn the most articulate in their native tongue into bumbling idiots abroad. I consider myself a worldly girl, yet the sister of a French friend who knows me only when speaking a foreign language commented that she found me to be naive. I am many things, but naive is not one of them. While I gracefully accepted that my foreign language skills didn’t allow the flexibility of displaying my better personality traits, as conversational models are limited by my inability to conquer the past or future tenses, I felt it only fair to point out, “If this conversation were in English, I’d knock your socks off! I’d dazzle you with witty repertoire. I simply dare you to tango with me en anglais ma soeur!”
The soufflé was let out of my soapbox sails, however, as unfortunately for me this argument was not held on the Great Plains but instead in a picturesque Parisian café. “Mais, oui”, my French friend’s sister exclaimed, dramatically puffing her lips and causing her salon-styled “brushing” to fluff around her face comme un nuage, “If we were in the Etats-Unis, I’d take that dare, but, alors nous sommes en France, et en France nous parlons français.”
“Merde,” I muttered and she in turn smiled, “Touché. At least you’ve conquered cussing.” But in fact even that wasn’t true. I hadn’t conquered cussing. For years I thought “plus tard” – “later” in French – was the same word the French use for “whore”.
“Whore” in French is the mother of all French swear words and is used as emphatically as dropping an F-bomb elsewhere. As a good girl from the Bible belt, I wouldn’t consider cursing in English; however, I’ve found release in those moments of Louboutin-tossing anger by screeching with Cruella Deville flair “Plus Tard”, causing mon mari to burst into laughter, easing the tension of the moment and allowing us to give way to the make-up portion of that passionate fight. My ability to speak a foreign language might be utter crap, but at least living en France has taught me la langue de l’amour.
But you can’t live on love alone. Speaking French – or apparently NOT as the case may be – might just be the death of me yet. I try. I really do. Unfortunately my pronunciation of the words J’Essaye – I try – and Je sais – I know – still sounds the same, causing conversational confusion over the years. When I moved abroad I thought, as many expats do, that I would be fluent in 3 weeks. I also believed that drinking copious quantities of red wine and exercising only whilst mounting the metro stairs when the escalator is out of order would turn mon derrière into something off the pages of Vogue. Reality alert, French women DO get fat. They just don’t leave the house after becoming gros.
Living life in a foreign language exposes one to all sorts of gross humilities and after dix années in Europe, I wonder if I am a masochist. I choose to live here. I love my life abroad having lived in 3 different foreign countries in 10 years. And yet, while I’d like to say I’ll be fluent someday – in any language – if I’m honest with myself, I know I never will be. Je suis un lazy polyglot. Don’t get me wrong – over the years my French has improved. As my French teacher claimed would someday happen, assigning gender to inanimate objects is second nature. When my husband returns home after a hard day’s work I greet him at the door with la poubelle. “She needs to go out,” I explain, handing him the trash while pecking him on the cheek. Trudging down the stairs, I hear him mutter, “I don’t know why you don’t take her out.”
Connaître et savoir rarely cause me confusion anymore, save for when I’ve had un verre too many and my words begin to slur. Slurrage in my opinion is the best thing that can happen to my language abilities – I become positively fearless. In general when speaking a foreign language my modus operandus is if one speaks quickly enough those listening will assume that with swift articulation they simply missed those syntactically-correct filler words.
American friends who do not speak a foreign language think I’m a demi-god. For I don’t just speak French poorly – I positively butcher Dutch and German with equal courage and tenacity and my accent in Italian has dark-eyed waiters falling to their knees. Mamma mia, but I adore learning new vocabulary. I love the feel of saucy foreign words rolling around my mouth, twisting my tongue into verbal calisthenics but somehow that sensation that causes me to latch onto new vocab hasn’t translated into a desire to put good grammar into practice. Mon dieu, je déteste grammar in English, crowning myself a comma-splicing queen, so it’s no surprise I find proper grammar simply superfluous in a foreign language.
When it comes down to it, as long as that nomadic blood which caused my forefathers to go west until homesteading in Oklahoma continues to swirl though mon corps, the bottom line is I have chosen to live abroad. And no matter how my language skills improve, I will always be speaking a foreign language. If a decade of living outside my home country has taught me one fundamental truth, it’s that one should always lie about the longevity of their time abroad. Once while taking the Thalys, sitting next to perhaps the most chatty French seat companion in the history of train travel, my seat mate concluded our marathon 5-hour conversation by saying, “Your French is quite good for an American. How long did you live in France?” “Five years,” I responded, to his horror. Aghast, his jaw fell slack, “Mais, pourquoi vous ne parlez pas bien français?”
Toma Clark Haines is The Antiques Diva™, author of the blog Antiques Diva and Chief Executive Diva of The Antiques Diva™ European Shopping Toursand the tour de force behind the online antique store “Treasures by The Antiques Diva™“.
The Antiques Diva™ is the In-House Antiques Expert for Bonjour Paris. Bonjour Paris Premium Members will receive a 10% discount with the Antiques Diva™ Tours.
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