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Comment Dit-on? 25/03/2010

Posted by brendan in La Vie en Paris.
Tags: , , ,


Sitting on the stoop. Some guy walks up, obviously after celebrating a warm spring day with several drinks. Standing too close and waving an unlit cigarette around he’s jabbering in French, but he’s not asking for a light. I explain I don’t really speak French very well, and he continues to repeat phrases until I ask if he speaks English. A little. The drinking has not helped his coherence but he’s wracking his brain The tension subsides a little but I still don’t want to be talking to him, and he’s still standing too close. His name is Ashi, he’s Algerian, and he’s asking if I want to go eat with him. “This is normal, for me” he says, but I’m not sure if it’s the being drunk by six or wearing sweatpants or inviting strangers to come eat with him that’s normal. I explain I’m eating with my friends upstairs, thanks very much.

Earlier in the day I was walking down our street and I watched a girl dropping large, flattened cardboard boxes in the crosswalk. After a moment of intense internal debate I ask if she needs help. Every time I’m on the verge of asking if anyone needs help with anything my brain attempts to interject a Pepé le Pew soaked “assistance” instead of “aide”. I throttle it, squeeze out the correct word. She thanks me profusely, says she’s only going right down the street. I march behind her carrying a box to a storefront and then she thanks me again, “vous être trés gentil” and I try to say ‘you’re welcome’ but she either can’t hear me or she’s drowning me out with merci’s.

Later in the evening, before the drunken Algerian, I was told that by saying, “les aides” I was actually offering the girl to help the boxes. Somehow it worked and she never once questioned what I was saying or assumed that I didn’t speak French. I think this is because the mind automatically filters out things that don’t make sense and replaces them with anything that might. If you’re lucky.


A guy stopped me on Ordener one day pestering me for tobacco, and we found ourselves standing on the corner talking for five minutes in English and French. I certainly didn’t want to be bothered when it began but by the end I felt elated. I didn’t rely so completely on not understanding and just going through the motions. We discussed things other than what I was buying which is my usual conversation.

One night I was walking along Magenta and a guy asked me where the Château l’eau métro stop was. It always pleases me when people ask for directions, although not as much as when I can answer. He eventually sussed out I was foreign and upon hearing I was from San Francisco there was some hi-fives and a special offer on really good hash. “Is my English still okay?” Better than my French.

I often know where things are but have trouble explaining them. What’s amazing to me is that despite my poor French, my reliance on hands to indicate intersections, and my frequent floundering people take my directions very seriously. So sir, I hope you found Gare Lazare just fine, and ma’am, you must have hit Bretagne if you kept walking straight. I’ve gotten a guy in the Porte de Clignancourt station to McDonald’s, told a woman an ATM was closed and explained to a waitress that I was writing for magazines but living here without a visa after she spent the previous hours ridiculing my attempts at French.

The increasing amount of fractured bilingual conversation, while still pathetic, makes me feel like I might just start to learn how to speak this language.



1. badnewslou - 29/03/2010

I found that once I got over making mistakes and looking stupid, learning Italian became much easier. Because even though I sound like a four years old trying to converse people generally got the gist. And often they would correct me and aided my language development. Every once in awhile I made a terrible gaffe that usually amused the native speaker to no end. So what I’m saying is keep at it. One day you will talk to someone and then afterward realize that you didn’t translate a thing and just understood. And that day is amazing.

blaark - 09/04/2010

Waiting for the day of amazing, and working towards it daily. I wish I could just babble what I’ve got locked inside the head but I keep blanking. It’s terrible, it’s like I have to be running on autopilot to really tap into my dormant French skills. When I’m walking down the street thinking I’m much better at putting everything together and formulating sentences but the shellshock still hits me fast and hard in the heat of conversation. But people, as I really would like to impress upon everyone, are really very gracious and try very hard to speak with me. That helps so much.

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