In yesterday’s email:
Having recently visited Paris this past July, I can personally attest that any self-imposed requirement to learn French is unnecessary. I tried to learn a few phrases and found that all I needed was the basics: “hello”, “please/thank you”, and “do you speak English?”. Beyond that, most Parisians I dealt with speak enough English to cope with you (especially the wait staff at any brasserie or cafe I went to) and they’re still nice to you when they figure out you’re American (usually within milliseconds of your mouth opening).
So stop stressing about that part and try to concentrate on the fun-having part.
I also look forward to whatever you end up writing as a result of this trip (hee!). Good luck!
The thing is, I really wanted to learn French! I’ve wanted to learn for most of my life, but Dad made me take Latin in high school and then, I don’t know, theatre was important.
So I’ve been learning French through Coffee Break French, which is fun and silly and… taught by people with extremely strong Scottish accents. So while Mark and Anna teach me how to get along in Paris, what happens is for me to remember how to say something in French, I first have to remember what it is in English… with a Scottish accent. It’s two classes in one! My Scottish accent is getting to be quite impressive.
I’ve never taken a foreign language where you actually speak to people. Latin is a dead language, after all, so we rarely — if ever — spoke it to each other in class. The only other language I’ve taken classes in is two semesters of ASL, which is kind of the point that you don’t talk out loud. (Did you know I originally majored in Theatre and Deaf Education? I thought I was going to do regional deaf theatre. But the dean of Speech and Communication Disorders sat me down and said, “You can’t do both of these workloads. You have to choose.” Oh, eighteen-year old me. If only you knew what was about to happen.)
Anyway, when I find myself trying to just speak in French, even when I’m saying something I’ve practiced a hundred times, like, “I would like a glass of red wine,” it takes me way too long to recall all of the words. Not because I don’t know them, but because I get nervous to say them.
Last year about this time I spent a few days in Puerto Rico. At one point we went driving to a more remote area and found a local bar that was kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I was starving and getting grumpy. Now, I’ve lived in Southern states and hotels and worked for Carlos Mencia long enough to know some Spanish. …Mostly I know how to curse or insult people.
But listen: knowing Spanish curse words has helped me tremendously in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. I once freaked the hell out of a few boys who thought I had no idea they were calling me a hot piece until I shot them a shocked look. And couple of years ago I heard the man who does the maintenance on this apartment shouting quite the phrase as soon as one of my neighbors drove away. He didn’t know I was within earshot.
“Excuse me,” I said to him. “Hi. I couldn’t help but overhear and… I really hope you don’t call me a motherfucker whenever I leave the apartment.”
The look on his face, it was priceless. And — I’m not making this up — he said, “I wasn’t talking about your neighbor, I was upset about this other thing, but… how did you know that I just said?”
I answered, “I used to work for Carlos Mencia.”
And he goes, “Oh! Well, that explains everything.”
After that, I knew he liked me.
Anyway, back to Puerto Rico. In reality, I almost know how to say enough basic things in Spanish that I am not completely lost. I understand it better than I can speak it. But the bartender in this little shack was a young girl of about seventeen who looked at me and I looked at her and we just sort of stared at each other. I couldn’t remember a word, and she had no idea what to say to me. I pointed at the weird crispy chicken things that were in a container on the bar, hoping she’d know that’s what I wanted. But I know “Pollo, por favor” people! What was wrong with me? Why was I choking?
The man who was sitting a few seats down from me said, “She doesn’t know a word of English.”
“Tell her I’m sorry,” I said. “I feel like an idiot.”
I wanted to talk to her, but my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember a word of Spanish. Not a word! I ended up saying — and I’m mortified that this is all I could come up with — “mi Espanol… Habla un poquito… habla like… el bebe. Un poquito. Muy un poquito. Lo ciento.”
(I am sure I’m misspelling all of that, and that nothing is agreeing in gender, because I’ve never had to write Spanish, only hear it and fake it. I know. Pobrecita.)
But look, if she needed me to tell her to go fuck herself or fuck her mother or that her vagina is near her butthole, I was totally ready to go. The thing is… it seemed inappropriate, given the circumstances.
What ended up happening was she just gave me this look and laughed, and I was totally humiliated. Once I left the bar, however, I was so upset with myself. “I know how to say, “The chicken, please! And two beers! Thank you! What happened?”
At the moment, looking at her, my brain was only giving me phrases in Latin. “Agricolae sunt in via,” I could have told her, informing her that farmers were in the road. But that wouldn’t have gotten me a Tecate.
I never want that to happen again.
So I’m trying to read and listen to as much French as I can before I get to Paris, so at the very least I can understand warning signs.
I remember in high school when I was teaching one of our Foreign Exchange Students how to use the darkroom — she was from… gosh, I can’t remember. Germany? Finland? It’s been a long time. But I remember her pointing at a sign and going, “Vas is dis word?… Hazarrrrdous. Hazarrrdous.”
And I said, “Hazardous! You need to know that word!”
I think of that moment all the time when I’m faced with signs in foreign languages. That I’ll be all, “This says we take a left, I think,” and in fact it says, “One step to the left and you die. For reals.” (In a more official way, I’m sure.)
I could walk up to a hotel desk clerk in Paris and probably check in, understanding how many beds in what size room and when he or she is asking for my passport, and do I want a view of the water or the church, but I know that when I’m the actual situation, I’ll be like, “J’ai ne comprend pas.”
Over and over again. I am sure I will say, “J’ai ne comprend pas. J’ai suis Americaine.”
Which, I’m sure that will be enough. But I’ve put in like, I guess at this point, over thirty hours in my French lessons (including falling in love with this little girl who taught me how to say “crocodile”), and still I know I’m going to choke. I’m totally going to choke!
I think about going back to that bar in Puerto Rico often, not because I liked Puerto Rico, but because I want to walk up to that girl and say, in perfect Spanish, “I am really sorry I didn’t know how to talk to you the last time I was here. You were very nice to me, and I was a dork. I went home and studied so that this time I could like to buy you the beer, if that’s okay.”
But if, in Paris, I find a way to order my mother her cup of tea exactly how she likes it, and then find a spot where she is allowed to smoke while she drinks it, I will have done enough.
(We’ve hit over 200 books and over $1000 at Dewey Donation System. We’ve even emptied out two of their wishlists. The books are starting to arrive. Have you helped yet? Can you? I’m writing every day hoping something is worthy of you sending a couple bucks Dewey’s way. If you like what I’m doing, can you buy a book for a kid who needs one? Maybe one who wants to learn French and Spanish someday?) (Capucine loves libraries too!)