[I am on vacation. What follows is my entry into a memoir writing contest. My 1st prize notification apparently got lost in the mail.]
Struggling to understand the chatter surrounding me in Geneva’s Cointrin Airport, I cursed in French for not having learned the damn language. Merde (Shit)! Fils de pute! (son of a bitch)! I knew French curse words would come in handy because my family and I had plopped into Francophone Switzerland for a five-year stay. My husband, John, had taken a job in Geneva. We all jumped at the adventure. John wanted the professional challenge, I wanted to travel around Europe, and our six-year-old son, Jacob, wanted to ride in a gondola while yodeling. Fantastic! So we schlepped all our crap to a place where none of us could speak the language. To a place where, in fact, they spoke a language I had already flunked twice. Merde!
It wasn’t just french classes I messed up. I also butchered the language while trying to actually communicate my first time in France, too. Two years after we married, John and I visited our close friend, Fran, who was living in Paris. John designated me the family French speaker, saying “You took it in college, didn’t you?” Oh well, I thought, I’ll try. Did I mention to him that I remembered almost nothing? Nah.
Our first morning in Paris, Fran sent us off on our own to see the city while she went to work. Pointing out the subway, she said, “The Metro’s cheaper if you buy a “‘carnay’ — a book of tickets.”
We got to the platform, and I practiced my line: “Je voudrais un canard.” “Je voudrais un canard.”
“Lease, you’re about to ask for a duck,” said John.
We laughed about it later with Fran, at a café near the Centre Pompidou. “It’s a damn good thing I’ll never really need to know French,” I told Fran. Merde! Those words haunted me for the five years I did need to know it, a decade later.
Actually, I was really excited about being in Switzerland, traveling around Europe, living a completely new life. Switzerland is a magical place. Breathtaking scenery surrounds you wherever you go. Just looking at the snow capped mountains rising up from behind Lake Geneva made me feel like Julie Andrews – I always wanted to sing. But full-time French made me want to scream. It was a major pain in the ass (une douleur importante dans le cul). I WILL LEARN THIS, I nevertheless promised myself. THIRD TIME IS THE CHARM, ISN’T IT? But I also steeled myself to be repeatedly humiliated on an international basis. It was important, though, that my son didn’t see my embarrassment too often.
I immediately enrolled in a French class; a mime class would have been more useful. La Migro, the local grocery store, offered what were considered the best local language classes. In spite of my history, I fully expected to be fluent in no time; after all my life was a French immersion class. I started to learn slowly. I thought I was doing pretty well, in fact. But after a year of hard work, I flunked the final. I was devastated.
This is not the Sorbonne, I thought. I can’t master grocery store French? I am living and breathing in French every day. How could I possibly have flunked? I can even successfully talk to people on the telephone in French where I cannot mime, and they understand me.
Well, they usually understood me. There was one major exception – giving directions to our house. Native French-speakers couldn’t follow my simple directions, even though our house was incredibly easy to find. Repair people had a particularly tough time. It was humiliating.
In Switzerland, most major routes are “la Route de Wherever.” If you are driving on the main route to Geneva, it is called “la Route de Genève.” Ours was a farm road and it wasn’t on the map. So to get to our house, I would tell people (in French) to get off the Autoroute at the Nyon exit, turn away from Lake Geneva, and take la Route de Ste. Cergue. (Ste. Cergue is the town just up the mountain from our house, a popular place for cross-country skiing and hiking. Everybody in the region knows it.) I told them to proceed uphill towards the mountains, two miles past the Avia gas station. Then, on the left (au gauche) there is a line of seven brown Swiss chalets that looks like a cuckoo clock display. We lived in the first cuckoo clock. How could anyone miss it? But French-speakers often just didn’t show up. I was really starting to hate French.
A year into our adventure, though, I realized that I had no choice but to learn the damn language. That’s when we got a puppy (un chiot; un jeune chien), an adorable English Springer Spaniel, Cooper. Dogs are welcome travelers throughout Europe. Well behaved dogs, that is. We wanted to travel, so Cooper needed training. Merde. Luckily, I found an obedience class that was held in a field where Cooper and I often walked, just across la Route de Ste. Cergue. We enrolled. Naturellement, it was taught in French.
The first of three classes was great. Cooper was a star. I understood what they were saying — Sit! Stay! (Asseyez-vous! Restez!) My French was very good! (Mon français était très bon !) Cooper and I sauntered home.
But we foolishly went back the next week. The class of about 20 people and 20 chiots was asked to line up for the exercises (ligne pour des exercices). We were asked to walk forward (de marcher en avant) – “So far, so good, Coops!” I said to the cooperative little guy. Cooper wagged his tail.
Then the teacher/drill sergeant stepped up the pace:
“Tournez à droite!”-– Turn right! I turned left. Cooper went straight.
“Tournez à gauche!” –Turn left! I was still correcting my incorrect right turn and couldn’t remember which side was “gauche.” Cooper got confused and wound himself and his leash around my legs.
“Marchez tout droit”— Walk Straight! Somehow, I regained my balance and held on to the leash, and then promptly walked into a man whose dog started humping mine.
“Repetez!” I didn’t want to. Cooper sat down and refused to move.
I could not keep up, and all I could think was “What idiot developed a language where “right” and “straight” are the same goddamn word?”
The situation did not improve when John and Jacob arrived to cheer me on. Merde! I wanted the earth to swallow them both and regurgitate them — safe and unharmed — at a later date and preferably in a place where English was widely spoken. Just about then I was told in rapid-fire French to:
“Tenez la laisse à votre tour de taille!”– Hold the leash at your waist. Hold the leash with my tail?
“Tirez sur la laisse à l’oreille”– Pull the leash to your ear. Why? Did I lose an earring?
“Grattez le chien est de retour.”– Scratch the dog’s back. Will he scratch mine?
“Prenez votre chien bout à bout et pousser vers le bas.” — Grab your dog’s butt and push it down. Huh?
“Donner au chiot un régal”— Give the puppy a treat. I deserve one, too!
“Ne pas le laisser manger la merde de vache qui est partout sur le terrain” — Do not let him eat the cow poop that is all over the field. So very glad I signed up for this class.
And the teacher started again! It was up, down, left, right, turn, heel, spin around, start again — “Repetez!” until Cooper and I were hopelessly confused about what we were supposed to be doing and why. I couldn’t remember if “gauche” meant “right” or “left” or what either had to do with its English definition of “tacky.” I no longer even liked dogs.
But my husband and son were sitting on the grass, watching.
Merde. I cannot let my seven-year-old see me looking like a clown. Suddenly, I knew exactly what I had to do.
“Tournez a gauche,” the teacher commanded. I bowed to Cooper, and then copied what my classmates had done, purposely two beats behind. Jacob looked confused, so I took it up a notch. I exaggerated our wrong turns. I checked my shoe for poop, grimaced, and wiped the pretend poop on a clump of grass. Jacob giggled. My classmates moved out of my way. I wobbled on an imaginary tightrope and tapped Cooper gently on the butt trying to make him wobble, too. Jacob and John laughed. I marched with military precision while Cooper did just as he pleased, and I faked shock and dismay. My guys were laughing with me. Cooper joined in the ruse by slipping out of his collar, running and jumping onto Jacob, depositing muddy paws and kisses all over him. Jacob was delighted. We happily returned home across la route de Ste. Cergue, my secret failure safe.
And then a miracle happened in the week between the second class and the final class. A French-speaking electrician found his way to my house using my directions. Directions I had told him en français. Better still, he solved the riddle, ‘where do repairmen go when I give them directions?’
“Cette route est appelée ‘la route Blanche,’” he told me. “Il n’est pas appelée ‘la Route de Ste. Cergue.’” This road is called ‘The White Road,’ he said. It is not called ‘the Road to Ste. Cergue.’” Even though it damn well is the road to Ste. Cergue and everybody takes it to get there.
There were no street signs of any kind, no name on the map. Nothing identified it as la Route Blanche. It seemed that this was a very new road by Swiss standards, only about 75 years old. The “old” route, which meandered around quite a bit and started twelve miles away and at a completely different exit, is still called la Route de Ste. Cergue, even though no one has used it to get there since 1927.
It is not my fault that French-speakers cannot follow my directions, I realized ecstatically. I can tell people how to get to my house! I can do it in French! They didn’t change the road name when they built the damn road. They didn’t change the map or put up street signs. There was no way for me to know! I am not an idiot!
Cooper and I went to the third and final class with renewed confidence. We invited John and Jacob to come. Cooper and I actually did better with the commands thrown at us in rapid-fire French. Some commands we understood, some we faked, some we hammed up as an encore.
Cooper earned a diploma in his class. He got to see a whole lot of Europe.
I continued with the grocery store French class, sometimes understanding and sometimes faking it. Within a few months, I passed the course. I took home a certificate and proudly showed it to John and Jacob.
“What does it say?” my son asked.
“It says “Jacob’s mommy is fluent in French!” I told him proudly. He gave me a kiss and happily headed out the door to play with Cooper.
John smiled. “What does it actually say?”
“I’m not really sure,” I said, smiling. “It’s in French.”