Merde 101

[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 twiceMerde!

           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 thoughtI 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.”


Filed under Humor

34 responses to “Merde 101

  1. The Boffin and I have talked about retiring to France at one point. (We have since scrapped that idea.) You basically described what my struggles with that damn language would have been like. Well done, Elyse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It veered dramatically between being hysterically funny and driving me into hysterics. I remember breaking into sobs in a hardware store when I couldn’t remember the french word for “nail.” But I’m glad to be back in the US given my health issues. It is hard enough to explain stuff in English! J’ai une probleme avec le poo-poo.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Especially with something important like healthcare, I can understand why you would want to be someplace where English is the main language.

        I spent two months on temporary duty in Provençe, and I decided to be adventurous and try to get my hair cut. The experience turned out to be a weird game of charades, showing the hairdresser pictures, and choking out enough basic French to get my wants across. It was excruciating though. I really felt like I went mad during the whole process.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I fortunately didn’t have problems with Crohn’s when I was there. It was after my surgery and I enjoyed a 22 year remission (!)

          But hair? Oh yes, the adventure. I have very curly hair — reddish-blond irish hair. One hairdresser cut it so that it was completely straight. No idea how she did that. I looked like someone else!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Well this gave me a good laugh! How does one laugh in French?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh dear… now I see what you were saying. (I somewhat understood the written French, though… that seems unusual to me.)


  4. Pingback: French is Dangerous | FiftyFourandAHalf

  5. Thanks, Russ. It’s actually one of my favorites. 🙂


  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful post, Elyse. Thank you!


  7. It was a love-hate relationship. But the fondue was as great as the scenery. And I appreciated that in English! But I cheat on the french with Google Translate. Alas it wasn’t very good when I lived there!
    Thanks for stopping by!


  8. Your time there must have gone well, in the end.
    You type the French with a perfect accent.

    And curse quite fluently.
    (Though I might not be that great a judge – all I can say is “My pen is green” – Mon plume est vert. I think.)


  9. Julia (AKA Jules)

    Ha! I remember learning french a few years’ ago. Gave it up as I found it too hard (and I find it hard to fathom how the French love Foie Gras, urgh!). At least I got a High School certificate out of it and I can “get by” in France!



  10. Your entry most certainly DID get lost! This was tres’ fabulous! (Tres’s is the only french I know after 4 years in high school and a trip to France).

    My son is 7 and learns French in school. He and his friend sit in the back of my car and talk about things I know nothing about, because it is all in French!
    At 7 it is probably not a concern, but what will I do when they are 15?!? It seems I need to do another French class of my own…


    • Kids will speak a language all their own no matter what! And they will manage to keep you in the dark. At least you don’t have to help with the homework! Thanks for your nice comments and for coming back!


  11. You mean I didn’t win?


  12. Yippeeee!!! As you know, this is one of my favorites and I’m so glad you decided to add it to the blog. As for that contest, you were robbed! Marianne


  13. In fact, that’s probably why we chose the breed. Thanks for coming back!


  14. Doc

    How egocentric the French are. Of course Cooper wouldn’t understand French. He was an English Springer Spaniel! Therefore, the class should have been taught In English. Let’s see those French hounds keep up then!


  15. I can’t really speak French because I can never come up with the “word”. But I can sometimes recognize words that others say. It’s quite interesting in France to listen to what other people are saying about you. Interesting and disturbing.


    • Steve Martin had a routine that I swear got me through the struggle. “The first thing you do when you get to Paris, is put on a French accent: ‘I wud lak to go to zee ‘otel.'” And it is true with tons of nouns. It’s the verbs that get you. I simply got used to looking stupid!


  16. When my daughter and I traveled to Paris we had a good friend with us who spoke very good French, so very helpful! Since I know nothing of the language it saved my life more than once I am sure.


    • That’s possibly more true than you know. One of the reasons we opted not to stay was the fear of one of us getting really sick — we had a friend contract brain cancer while we were there — and be unable to communicate. Here, we are able to communicate, but the docs don’t always listen. I guess you just can’t win!


  17. We traveled through Switzerland a few years ago and struggled with French in Lausanne. I truly believe that mime evolved naturally in France because no one can figure out the language. Thanks for the chuckles.


    • Good point! Mime certainly helped me more than the language course did!

      Lausanne is lovely — we lived half way between there and Geneva. Spectacular scenery!


  18. Wow. Un diplôme français. Félicitations. Quel beau souvenir!


  19. this is when i fell in love with you and knew you had to be my friend …xox


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