22 February 2008

Watch Your Language

The other day, a friend of mine who takes great pride in displaying his french-language proficiency, called a local restaurant to cancel his reservation that evening because his wife "doesn't smell good."

And when I call to make an appointment to get a haircut, I am careful to speak only English because the last time I did it in French, instead of asking for a haircut, I asked Wanda at what hour tomorrow I could come in to cut up some horses.

We do try to say a few French phrases every day. It seems whatever ground we gain, we lose over the summer, and then next winter we start all over again. Just yesterday, determined to master the French counting system, I wrote an insurance check to the local company that insures my boat. I practiced at home, wrote the check out in advance, and proudly presented it to the broker, who, like my sixth grade teacher Mrs Miano, very graciously marked up my submission and sent me home to correct it. I had to return the next day because I had been so confident I had done it correctly, I left the checkbook home. Eighteen hundred seventy three in English is not eighteen hundred seventy three in French, but "thousand, eight hundred, sixty- thirteen." Ask why and you get the Gallic Shrug. It is the eqivalent of my former secretary Edith Kaplan's response to those "Why" questions: Though it sounds much better in the original Yiddish, her answer was "Because the cat laid an egg."

The check incident is not so bad, I guess. It's doesn't compare to the time I told the waiter he could take away my empty plate because I was dead.

Grocery stores are particularly difficult. Like our supermarkets, you take it off the shelf and bring it up front to pay for it. There is nobody in the aisles to translate the labels and if you want coffee, and all they have is "café moulu", you just take your best shot. In that case, I lucked out, because it means "ground coffee, " but when it comes to everything else, you kinda look at the pictures on the labels and go with your gut. I once spent fifteen minutes talking to every employee in the store asking for "oatmeal." It appears that while the supermarket has fifteen kinds of pate and forty varieties of cheeses on display, nobody there has ever heard the word "oatmeal". Well, I guess it's the French Paradox: Forget the oatmeal; eat all the rich pate and fatty cheese you want as long as you drink enough red wine. Hey, I can do this.

A bientot.

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