Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bonjour! Je m'appelle Paisley! Je suis un idiot!

So I'm learning French dans ma voiture. Having decided to live for a significant period of time in at least three different countries means, obviously, signing on to sounding like a complete moron for a year. It also means buying some very expensive packages of language CDs in the hopes that one of them will be able to overcome my innate NON-language learning abilities, and help improve seven years of what can only generously be described as lackadaisical French studies in school. What to buy? Not the Rosetta Stone, which comes in at a whopping $400. No, I got the bargain-basement Ultimate French which, at $50, includes 8 CDs (!), a dictionary, and a thick workbook. (Parce que je suis professeur, they had me at "workbook.") For half an hour or more each day (depending if I drive to Ikea), I studiously repeat each phrase I hear, cheerfully articulated at me through my Subaru's tinny speakers. Which means for the past week, I've been driving around town talking to myself in the voice of an over-caffeinated air hostess.


Interestingly, my boyfriend (let's call him Mr. Annoying Pants) is nearly fluent in French. So when I come home bursting with all sorts of new and useful phrases about where one might find books (dans la bibliotheque!) or a refrigerator (dans la cuisine!) that will surely win me many friends and admirers in Paris, Mr. Annoying Pants tells me that maybe the best strategy would be for me to just keep quiet.

Va t'en, monsieur pantalons d'ennuyeux!

What I find myself thinking as I drive around town is how my old, batty, irascible French teacher from grade school would surely throw a fit if she heard my babblings now. Madame X, whose name I forgot but whom I will refer to as Madame Sosostris for this post, was a REAL FRENCH PERSON, about 60 when I was in grade school at Villa Academy, with bright orange hair and lipstick the color of a fire hydrant. She loved plaid skirts pinned closed with what looked like an enormous brass paperclip and she had an amazing, withering sigh only the morally exhausted among us or those who work as French waiters can ever master. She was barely 5' tall and roughly the width of a grasshopper. And she was, though a REAL FRENCH PERSON, a terrible teacher of her own language. She was easily enraged or distracted and, if distracted, would spend the class hour waxing poetic about her youth during WWII outside of Paris. You wouldn't think this was a particularly romantic time, but the story she had to tell would convince you of the opposite.

Evidently, at age 16 Madame Sosostris was living in a small farmhouse with her mother. Her father was missing, or dead, or working for the Resistance (this part was never clear to us), and so Madame S and her mother eked out a living on the farm by themselves, foraging in the woods, milking their one cow, occasionally killing a neighbor's errant chicken. Years passed like this. Then, one day, the Nazis came. ("Nazis!" breathed the class.) The Nazis commandeered their farm, turning the modest place into a kind of military headquarters, then leaving behind a young communications officer to stand guard when the rest of the squadron left. The young officer was supposed to remain at Madame S's farm to send and receive or translate radio messages for the rest of the German army. (This part was never clear to us either.)

Because of the presence of a German communications officer in their house, and because it was the war, listening to a radio was strictly forbidden. In fact, Madame S warned us sternly, it was an offense punishable by death, should any unlucky French girl be caught. But one night, while setting the dinner table in anticipation of the lovely last neighbor chicken her mother had just killed, Madame S couldn't stand the silence anymore. She couldn't stand the interminable gloom of the farmhouse, the war, her 16 year-old life. She broke. She turned on the radio.

As she was dancing to the cheerful sounds of American big band dance music (her phrase, not mine), she heard a sudden sound in the doorway. She turned. But even before she turned, she knew. It was the officer.

("Nazis!" breathed the class.)

Madame S stopped dancing. The young officer had one hand behind his back and was staring, sternly, down at her. Madame S swallowed. The young officer began to march into the room. Madame S dropped the fork and knife she'd been holding. The young officer drew up to the table. He began to remove his hand, slowly, from behind his back. Madame S croaked something weakly, hoping her mother would hear.

"For you," the young officer intoned. Madame S looked down at his hand. It was gripping the neck of a wine bottle. The officer put the wine bottle down on the table, bowed neatly to her, and marched back out of the room.

"And zat was what it was like to be in France during ze war," Madame S finished, as our whole class burst into cheers.

You can imagine how much we loved this story, especially when it came time for French verbs. "But Madame," we'd beg when the subjunctive loomed, "WHAT ABOUT THE NAZIS?" And Madame, ever pliable, would launch back into her story.

Considering how many of us in that room were hovering at the palpitating cusp of adolescence, I'm certain Madame's story had long-lasting and, shall we say, fevered effects on some of us. Probably one of my classmates right now is scribbling a tome entitled Naughty Nazis, one of a series of erotic tales for the Historically Impaired. (That "one of my classmates," by the way, would NOT be me.) Regardless, Madame's story meant we never learned the subjunctive, any numbers over twenty, and gained, only at the last, the shakiest grasp of the past tense.

And it is why, every morning, I greet my car in French.

So this post is for you, Madame, and your young German officer, and for the subjunctive tense that I wish I could learn (alert: inside grammar joke. HA!), and pour ma Subaru Legacy Wagon, and for all people learning to speak the languages of the world on their commutes, among the sandwich wrappers and empty coffee cups of the ill-accented damned, bleating their sad requests for directions to the metro or the library or just a decent, cheap restaurant to their steering wheels. Bon chance, mes amis! Mon semblable-- mon frère--!

Here's a little song that should amuse you.


  1. When I was studying for language exams, Rebecca Lindenberg turned me on to using foreign-language subtitles while watching films on DVD, which is kind of interesting and frustrating both (of course).


  2. And how's the Vietnamese coming? Last night dinner guests gave MM a đàn bâu - maybe he can battle the erhuists for some prime subway territory and busk.