Suz – a self-described Francophile writes about her lifelong desire to speak French. Suz lives in the states with (who she calls) her half French husband. Their running joke is – her next husband with be full French.
I met Jean, then a middle aged French man married to ma belle-mare, almost 32 years ago in France. I was a young woman from Michigan living in Germany with my half French husband and new baby.
Jean had been a young boy during World War II and talks of remembering tanks, jeeps, and soldiers in his small village. When we visit France he often points out these memories. As an adult, he fought in the French Indochina war and served in North Africa. He held French Paratrooper records; I’ve seen the peak in the Pyrenees he set his record on. He is a very proud French man with many layers to his life.
After 32 years I feel like I know Jean well, yet we have never held a conversation. We have spent many holidays together both in France and in the states. He’s been involved in every major event in our lives – births, deaths, birthdays, graduations, weddings etc… We don’t go more than a year without seeing each other and we talk weekly. Yet we’ve never held a conversation.
He’s a feisty older man now – 86 this June, yet he is still the same man I met 32 years ago. He and I still have the same relationship as we did then – it’s complicated. Who goes 32 years and doesn’t have a conversation? This has to be a world record. How do we do it? Well, we have an amazing translator in the family. Ma belle-mere is a master communicator; I could talk about her language skills for hours but let’s just say I have never seen anyone go between two languages like she does. Although at times, I’ve wondered if she is translating exactly what he is saying to me…
This past year, I decided it was time to learn to speak French. However, for 32 years I used what I called my 15 French words to communicate avec Jean. I seriously had only about 15 words that I would use. I could make hundreds of sentences with these 15 words. Bonjour, au revoir, bonne nuit, quelque chose, voudriez-vous, avec, demain, je suis, fatigue, de vin, chaud, froid, ça va, merci beaucoup, and bisous ma miche.
Oui, bisous ma miche (kiss my miche). About 10 years ago, on a trip to France, Jean and I were bickering (as usual). He doesn’t like that I use Ketchup on everything and I don’t like that he drives like a crazy person. We were at la boulangerie and he pointed out a miche (a type of French bread). It was not a typical French baguette; it had a round shape to it. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I probably said “what’s a miche”? I think Jean then said something about it being shaped like a butt – you know a derriere, and that was the extent of the conversation, but the miche and his comment regarding its resemblance to the derriere stuck with me. Later that day using my at the time 14 words, I was talking to Jean and he was being grumpy, so I blurted out “bisou ma miche”. Not wanting to be too rude, but at the same time wanting to express to him that he was being snippy with me and I was drawing a line. Oh my goodness did he react! At first, like always when I use French words – he said “QUOI?” So I asserted myself “Bisous ma miche – monsieur”.
I immediately thought “oh no, did I go too far”, then Jean let out his famous giggle. It’s a very annoying giggle (extremely annoying), but when he laughs like this you know he is truly tickled. So although you hope he doesn’t giggle like this too long – else he might choke and I might scream – it’s a good sign he approves (very unlike the look I get when I ask “ou est le ketchup?”) From here on out, bisou ma miche became our inside joke.
Jean likes to tease me. I guess it’s the way we’ve come to communicate. He hates the way I speak French but he loves the way I say Hélicoptère in French. He always wants me to say it in French for his friends (yes, he is making fun of me, but I don’t care – he can’t say hamburger or much of anything in English LOL).
This May we will visit Jean and boy oh boy will he be surprised. I have tons of new words. I’m sure I will still use bisou ma miche when he is grumpy avec moi. Mais, maintenant, j’ai beaucoup de mots! I won’t say them right and he will act like he doesn’t understand me AT ALL. And ma belle-mere will have to translate. In addition, I am a little worried that I may understand more than I want to. I’ve told my husband to tell his mother to warn Jean that I can understand a lot more these days so he should be cautious of what he is saying (so I don’t cry).
Again, after 32 years, it’s complicated. Je suis un Américaine who adores ketchup and he is a seasoned French man who doesn’t like his beer in a frosted glass (always an issue in the states). But we are family and families argue and tease. I’m excited to attempt to actually communicate with Jean this year. I think he will be truly surprised and impressed. One of the things I’ve always missed being able to express to him the last 32 years is love. I want to tell Jean how much I love him. I want him to know how much I value him and how much I appreciate all the time and money he has spent coming to the states to be with us. I want him to know he has been a wonderful Grandfather to my children and now to my Grandchildren. I want him to know I miss him and I love him. I want him to know he is a cantankerous man at times and that I realize I’m a challenge to him as well – It’s complicated. Bisous ma miche Jean!