Wednesday, July 30, 2014

French with a Jersey Accent

"Tres froid" I announced to everyone as I returned to my table outdoors, having walked through a very cold restaurant. My remark brought smiles to the faces of those assembled.

It has been almost 45 years since my last French class. I was a remarkably untalented student, convinced I had maneuvered my way into the honors class because the assistant golf coach had been my 10th grade French teacher and apparently taken a liking to me, if not my accent.

Once in the honors class, my harsh tones and total lack of proficiency were tres noticeable. Mr. Juka, the teacher saddled with my presence for my last two years of high school found any excuse not to call on me. I distinctly recall that he would go up and down the aisles, in order, seeking an answer to the question that lingered in the air. However, when it would be my turn to butcher a response, he would drop a pencil, or in some other manner become distracted, and would almost uniformly fake as if I had already completed my mangling of the language.The sound that emanated from me must have seemed to him like fingers scratching agonizingly slowly across a chalkboard. I am certain my shortcomings made his head hurt.

My classmates, Ozzie and Gene, were the unhappy recipients of many a phone call seeking not so much help and guidance with homework, but a bail out from whatever French woe had befallen me. Preparation for tests meant a nearly continuous stream of cries for help from mon amis.

And the worst part was that everything that came out of my mouth sounded like I was speaking a New Jersey form of French. The melody of that language was completely lost on me, and the words spewed forth without any soft or gentle breezes attached.

This week, my friends from California came to New York City to visit their nephew, niece and her husband. Marc was fluent in French, having gone to the same school as I growing up but somehow mastering the intricacies that fully escaped my grasp. Georgette (pronounced with the lightness of a small wave lapping against the shore) was a native speaker of the language. Her family were French through and through.

Over the last several decades my wife and I have journeyed often to the West Coast to spend time with our friends. Depending on the circumstance, Georgette moves seamlessly from English to French to Spanish,  with what appears to be unerring proficiency. Although, I do recall  on one occasion she recounted a tale of her car  burning up and reported that her "rear end was on fire". 

Pour moi,  I  make a point  on each visit to announce at every conceivable opportunity that we must "allez vitement" even if there is no place we need to be in any particular hurry. Throw in a "peut etre" or two along the way, even when the choice is manifest, and I feel as if I have matched the prowess of  our  hostess,  word for word (I wanted to write this phrase in French but I could not do so without cheating, and I was afraid if I left this page, my accumulated work might disappear into la nuit).

Good fortune has allowed me to visit Paris on more than one occasion. I am quite surprised that there was not a picture of me in every establishment, much like an FBI warning poster, advising tout la monde of my impending arrival, and warning that no ear is safe in my presence. If they had only known, I am certain that most places of public accommodation would have politely requested that I "fermez my bouche"  so as not to frighten other customers.

"Bon soir, comment allez vous" would be about the only full sentence I would be able to recall as we met Marc, Georgette and her family for dinner at a restaurant directly across from the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center (my  pronunciation put a distinct second "r" sound after the first "e"). I didn't think to ask "Ou est le bain?" when I was headed to the bathroom later in the evening (maybe because I knew where it was).

Most of the conversation at the table was in English. The husband of the niece was hesitant to speak, even as he clearly understood what was being said. Maybe he thought he was less than fluent in our tongue. Well, I would show him what less than fluent really is.

There were certain triggers that brought forth a stream of conversation that I could not follow. I tried to pick up a word, or maybe even a phrase, but my ear could not pierce through the night air to attach a meaning to anything that was being "parlezed en francais". I sometimes nodded my head "un peu" as if I were taking it all in. 

"No, merci", I intoned as I was offered some morsel of food which gave me ample opportunity to demonstrate my proficiency, so many years after my last B- in 12th grade.  I know this came out distinctly sounding like "no mercy". I find it telling that all these years later, I still have occasional nightmares about walking into a test, overwhelmed by my lack of knowledge.

Throughout the evening, there was a sprinkling of two or three word responses by me in jarringly bad French. My piece de resistance was my very short singing of  "la plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle" which was the only part of a verse I recalled from a tune I had learned a half century earlier. If there was anything worse than my speaking French badly, it was singing French badly.

In small doses, at least for one evening, I think this act amused those who were subjected to my annihilation of their native tongue. As dinner finished,  we bid "au revoir" and I walked into the "tres chaud" evening humming  "la plume de ma tante" and wondering why I never heard from Ozzie or Gene after high school ended.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely wonderful. I laughed many times! Thanks so much for putting pen to paper!!


Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed it.Thanks so much for passing it along. Bob brought back a lot of fond memories. I really did all I could to get him through Juka’s class. You had to feel for him…he truly was an awful French student.


Anonymous said...

Sacre bleu!! C'est votre ami ozzie! Bon soir!! I don't get to your blog often, but i do enjoy it when i read it.

Anonymous said...

I was so impressed with your French with Jersey Accent story that I immediately made reservations for Julie and I to have dinner tomorrow night at our favorite French restaurant here in LA.


Anonymous said...

vous parlez francais tres bien

as someone who suffered through two years of Mr Evans, your post had me rolling


Anonymous said...

Thank you Bob for bringing us back to wonder "Ou sont les neiges d'antan?"


Anonymous said...

Guten Morgen, meine Herren!

Ich spreche Franzosich nicht. Was gibt?


Anonymous said...

I thought I was being a cool intellectual taking Latin. Needless to say I learned very little except that when my then girlfriend graduated collage summa cum lauda I was able to say I graduated per cuta dentibus. At least I think I got it right.