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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

En français, s'il vous plaît

I should have paid more attention in school. I took French for four years: two in the UK during junior high school and two in high school back in the States. I must have shown some promise because during my last year they put me in the Advanced French class.

Ah, Paris...

Alas, I was a knucklehead as a young man and did not seize the opportunity. In fact, me and my best friend John - the one who said his father was in the CIA - conspired to cheat the system. You see, our teacher was a Canadian lady, one of only two female teachers in the entire school. Did I mention I attended military school? Anyway, she looked to be about eighty years old and resembled what you might think of today as one of those cat ladies. You know, the ones the neighbors call the police on because there are hundreds of mewling cats next door?

I can no longer recall the poor woman's name, but being Canadian, she could surely speak French.

In any case, Advanced French requires a lot of conversation, so our teacher would pair us off and each duo would engage in witty French repartee. Except for John and I. As our crazy cat lady teacher would circle the room listening to each conversation and offering praise or suggestions for improvement, John and I would engage in witty English repartee - using outrageous French accents.

"Soooo, Jean, what'ar we do-eng zis week-en?"

"Je ne sais pas, peut-être nous pouvons chasser les chats."

You see, as the teacher would get closer to us, we would have to lapse into actual French so as not to get into trouble, or worse, fail the class.

Which is, of course, the root of my embarrassment today. Obviously we knew enough French to actually converse when we had to, but we were just too darn lazy. If only...

Fast forward thirty-plus years and I'm driving to work this morning listening to conversational French CDs in my car.

"Why?" you might ask.

They speak French here, too

Anyone who has the dubious distinction of reading my blog will know that I have been to Haiti in 2010 and 2011 and am blessed to be able to return to this island nation on July 6th. While the Lingua Franca of Haiti is Creole, most everyone there speaks French thanks to - as history tells us - a parade of despotic French colonists. I still haven't quite figured out how Haitians feel about the French today. They teach French in school and the language of their former masters seems to sit quite comfortably alongside the more relaxed Creole dialect. It's a bit strange. I suppose one day I will have an opportunity to discuss these things with some of the more patient people there; those who will tolerate this curious American.

Anyway, I'm driving to work this morning and I reached the end of disc four, which had been droning on about banks and hotels and post offices and money machines - les distributeurs automatique -  none of which will likely come up in conversation while on a mission trip. But one thing I have noticed: I actually recall more French than you might think I would, given my sordid history in the classroom.

In the past I have lived in the Middle East, traveling to Lebanon and the like. I've also traveled in Europe, passing through France and Switzerland a few times. So I've had an opportunity to at least hear the language being spoken. Ninety-five percent of the time I had no clue what people were saying but I can still greet you in French and ask how your cat is doing.

But what struck me as funny this morning was when disc four flipped back to the beginning and the accordion music started.


I'm not sure what's going on with that. I suppose it's just something to put the listener/learner in the mood to learn French. Nothing says, "French!" like accordion music, right? I didn't spend a lot of money on my language course. I know I'm not going to be fluent anytime soon. But I'm also not likely to go out and buy up all the French Accordion compilations either.

The lady in the car in front of me had been checking me out in her mirror - I suppose she was trying to figure out who I was talking to. When I burst out laughing at the accordion music, she sped up and changed lanes.

C'est la vie!

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