There is nothing like traveling to a country where English is not the native tongue to make one feel humble…and slightly terrified. My husband and I recently flew to Paris to reunite with our daughter at the end of her study abroad program. The plan was to head out to Normandy upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle, spend a few nights, then return to Paris for a long weekend. I spent many hours preparing for this adventure, which involved the driving of a stick-shift vehicle down narrow cobblestone streets, around twisting roads with speed limits between 90 – 130 km, not to mention parking in the narrowest spaces you’ve ever attempted to negotiate. For weeks before our departure, I read everything Rick Steves ever wrote on the subject and even used one of his trip itineraries as our model for getting around the northwestern coast of France. I booked all of our accommodations, and mapped out an interesting route from Monet’s gardens in Giverney, to the charming port of Honfleur, to the ancient tapestry in Bayeux, across the D-Day beaches, ending with a night on medieval Mont St. Michel. Travel day finally arrived and I stepped upon the Air France plane to the greeting of “Bonjour madame!” And from that point on, every notification and announcement was spoken in French. I froze. When the flight attendant approached me with the drink cart, I tried to ignore her despite my strong desire for a glass of wine. “Madame,” she asked, “Voulez vous quelque chose à boire?” I looked at her and uttered, “Huh?” To which she replied, “Oh. Would you like something to drink?” How embarrassing. Sipping my vin rouge, I returned to my buddy Rick’s guidebook to see what he had to say on the subject. Luckily, he gave several one-liners to help American travelers survive on a French vacation. I felt much better. When the plane landed, I confidently said “Merci” and “Au revoir” to all of the stewards, who smiled and answered “Goodbye.”
Happily, our flight landed right on time, our luggage arrived promptly, our daughter was waiting for us, we picked up our car, and took off across the French countryside. In the car I expressed my trepidation about speaking French to my daughter who assured me that everyone understands English, but they appreciate it when you attempt to communicate with them in French. I began to feel better; after all I’d taken two years of French at Cuero High School in the ’70’s. Honestly, all I remembered were a couple of phrases, “Ferme la bouche,” which means, “Shut your mouth,” and was frequently uttered by my teacher, Madame McBride, and “Voulez-vous couche avec moi ce soir?” of Lady Marmalade fame. I figured neither would be appropriate in polite French company.
The first night we stayed in a tiny town on the coast, Honfleur, and ate in a small restaurant overlooking the port. It was clear from the start that our waiter could not speak or understand English. My husband and I looked at our daughter in terror. She calmly guided us through the menu and politely ordered for us in French. She taught us to always ask for a “carafe d’eau,” meaning a pitcher of water, which is willingly provided but only if you ask. We learned that the French are very polite people who never assume that you want anything. You must ask first, even for the check, then it will be provided. “L’addition, s’il vous plait.” Memorize that. After a couple of days, my husband and I began to feel more confident, and appropriately uttered such phrases as bonjour, au revoir, merci, and in the evening, bonsoir. So, we were on a roll, although our daughter had a rather irritating habit of imitating our South Texas accents, saying, “Bone Jur” and “Mercy.” Apparently, I also had a habit of singing my French phrases; I couldn’t help it. I’d just watched “Julie & Julia” before coming and all I could hear was Julia Child’s sing-song, confident use of the language, which I desperately tried to imitate. One day when I felt especially relaxed, I took the bold step of offering to purchase our tickets at a museum, while my daughter and husband headed to the toilette. I approached the sales desk and confidently said to the ticket lady, “Tres” (pronouncing the s). She looked very confused, turned her head a little and seemed unsure of my purpose. “Tres.” I said louder. “Tres tickets,” I said emphatically, slightly annoyed. Then, realizing my mistake I said “Tray” which of course was correct as one doesn’t pronounce the last consonant of a word when speaking French. Still no response. I then resorted to the international sign for three and held up three fingers. She smiled, nodded and handed me three tickets. I said, “Merci,” gratefully, to which she replied in English, “Would you like headphones to help explain the exhibit?” I said, “Oui!” She then asked if I’d prefer them in English or French. I laughed and said, “Oh, English, I guess. Our French isn’t quite that good yet!” She smiled politely and handed me three headphones, which I distributed to ma famille. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I reflected upon the incident and tried to determine what had been wrong with my accent. OH MY GOD, I said tres instead of “TROIS.” I asked for “very tickets,” as in tres bien! I was so embarrassed that I didn’t tell my daughter and husband until we were having drinks at a restaurant several days later. We all laughed uproariously. I then said to my husband, “Shall we ask for a cafe de l’eau?” “MOM, IT’S A CARAFE D’EAU.” Ooops!
I’m pretty sure I’m somewhere in the Twitter-verse beside the hashtag, #When Parents Speak French. Oh well. C’est la vie!