While in London, I noticed that the British had no qualms about swearing up a storm. I’m not sure whether the same is true of Parisians or not. They could have been swearing up a full-on hurricane, and I would not have noticed. Instead, it was me who was (inwardly! I tried very hard to be polite) swearing up some kind of ouragan.
So, oui, everyone, please pardon my French! It’s very poor; but I made do with the few words I know, and I learned a lot. In this blog post, I’d like to share some of the comical language woes I experienced as an American in Paris.
Would You Like a Worm of Wine?
Upon first arriving in Paris, I entered a bar to wait for my Airbnb room to be ready. An exuberant bartender (a friend of my Airbnb host) wished to communicate. Due to our mutual lack of skills in each other’s tongues, we used Google to translate.
One of the first things he typed was (in French) “Would you like a glass of wine?” The app translated this as “Would you like a worm of wine?” I thought this was very funny. I did not for a second think that he was offering to serve me a worm soaked in wine. The word for glass, I was proud to remember, is verre, while the word for worm is ver: an understandable language mishap.
But this was not nearly as funny as what happened next.
Would You Like Broccoli Beer?
Giving up on the app, he asked if I wanted beer. The word for beer is bière, so I understood him perfectly. The trouble was that he then started asking—with greater and greater insistence—whether I wanted broccoli beer.
Broccoli beer? I was skeptical. Don’t get me wrong—I love broccoli. But in beer? Is this how they brew beer in France? Dump some broccoli and hops in a barrel, throw in some worms, wait a few weeks, and voilà: beer! He was so confident that I would like it that I finally agreed to try it.
The beer was served. It was not green, but a normal amber color. It was very good beer.
We kept talking about the broccoli beer, until I finally realized what he was saying: Brooklyn! And I laughed and laughed. I Googled “broccoli” and showed him a photo of what I thought he meant. He thought this was all very funny, too.
And just as funny? The thought that I would travel all the way to Paris, just to drink beer from New York! (He was trying to make me feel comfortable, which I appreciated . . . but ha!)
Would You Like Snails?
Yes, I would like snails, merci beaucoup. I sat outside at a cafe and ordered the snails cassolette, just to try something new and interesting. (I was so eager to eat that I took some bites before snapping this photo.) It was delicious: it tasted like mushrooms or squid. No problems here.
The problem arose when a panhandler walked up to me and said something. I stared at him like an idiot—or like an American who doesn’t speak French. I got the impression that he wanted money, not because I understood a single word he said, but because of his attire.
And then suddenly the waiter appeared and chased him into the street, yelling! They had an altercation! I tried to understand what they were saying; and I thought I understood the waiter to say (in French) “second.” It was just an impression of a feeling, not the conscious hearing of an actual word. Was that the second time the panhandler had panhandled at that cafe? I will never know.
So I finished my snails and went to the theatre.
Would You Like to Cry . . . or Sleep?
I went to a production of En attendant Bojangles (Waiting for Bojangles). The play is based on the best-selling novel by Olivier Bourdeaut, which I wrote about in these previous blog posts. Here is a complete list of the words I understood while watching the play:
- mère (mother)
- père (father)
- avec (with)
- chaque (each)
- Espagne (Spain)
- Mademoiselle Superfétatoire (Miss Superfluous, the family’s pet crane)
Needless to say, these did not get me very far. But the visual aspects of the production were superb. And the audience was loving it. The women around me were crying at the end, and the ovation was loud and long. I, however, had trouble staying awake.
Another evening, I went to a production of the classic play Fin de partie (Endgame) by Samuel Beckett. I understood a longer list of words this time, because Beckett uses a lot of short, simple sentences in the play, so as to help establish an apocalyptic mood. But once again, I understood almost nothing and struggled to stay awake.
After the performance ended and most of the people had exited, I snapped this photo, because I thought it was such a cool venue. It was a little brick tunnel, as you can see. As I was taking the photo, the usher spoke to me harshly. He said quite a large number of words to me. At first, I thought he did not want me taking the photo. But as I was nodding and exiting the theatre, I noticed a lot of people waiting to get in, apparently for another performance that was about to happen. So then I thought that probably the usher just wanted me to leave. Once again, I will never know. Hopefully he was not saying to me, “Under no circumstances should you post that photo on the Internet!”
Maybe I will keep studying French and try the Paris theatres again someday. Fuck me, it was not a fully enjoyable experience this time around (pardon my language).
Would You Like to Buy a Vowel?
To sum up—language is strange. Have you noticed that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus among Americans about how to pronounce “Franklin Roosevelt”? Is it ROSE-eh-velt or RUSE-eh-velt? How about “Teddy Roosevelt”? (This article has more of a definitive answer than what I can provide.) I recently heard “Franklin Roosevelt” pronounced in the French way on a bus intercom; a bus stop in Paris is named after him.
I have no words—in any language—to describe my surprise upon hearing the bus stop announced, and suddenly realizing what had been said!