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. 

Lost in Translation?

When ma belle-mère, Colette told me this summer “Don’t order a wine”, I just smiled.  I should start by saying that over the last 30 years, I’ve said to my husband a thousand times “I know that your mom didn’t mean to be rude, but…”

I can’t tell you how many times, she has said things to me that if someone else heard them they would cringe.  But, I’ve learned that it’s just – what I’ve come to call lost in translation or LIT.  Over the years I’ve watched for this in other non-native English speakers, and it really exists.  It’s hard to describe, but in a nutshell as good as her English is, the little subtleties that occur in a language are LIT.  You can translate words, but trying to translate a subtlety is extremely difficult if not impossible.  I’m sure I’d have the same issue if I spoke French or another language, but I don’t – cause oh – I can’t but I’m trying.

Don’t order a wine” Colette said as we walked out of the house one afternoon heading downtown to people watch.  “Quoi” I said.  “Don’t order a wine, they’ll think you’re a drunk” she responded.  I’m sure the look on my face prompted her follow-up.   “French people don’t drink wine in the afternoon – they’ll think you’re a drunk” she grinned.  “Okay… then what should I order?” I said.  “A Panache” she grinned.

Now, this is not my first or second or even third trip to France.  I’ve been to France many times; I’ve been to French gatherings, restaurants, homes, etc…  It’s different but it’s not that different.  I’ve never been uncomfortable and I don’t ever recall anyone ever being rude to me.  I usually just follow along and I’ve never had any problems.  So, as I explain this, I don’t want it to sound like she was trying to school me in French etiquette.  She wasn’t.  She was really just trying to say “have a great time”.  No for real, that’s all she meant.  Don’t read into it.  There was no sarcasm intended.  She just wanted us to have a nice time and of course to subtly remind us that the French don’t drink wine in the afternoon.  LIT at its finest.

When my daughter was born I planned on naming her Danielle.  Until the day I got a letter in the mail from Colette that said “I guess a name like Jennifer just wouldn’t be good enough for you guys”.  What she really meant was – she liked the name Jennifer and she was tossing it out there as an option.  My daughter’s name is Jennifer.

Just so you know, I personally would not have ordered a wine in the afternoon.  Normally I would have ordered a grand crème to wake me up and my husband would have had a Belgian beer.  But, this day I ordered a Panache.

Believe me there have been times that I’ve shaken my head thinking – wow that did not come out very nice.  But there’s never any ill intent.  It’s merely LIT.

I’ve learned to listen for what she is not saying – rather than to what she is saying.  And it’s always with love and good intentions.

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.

QUOI (What)?

Apparently my French still stinks. After a long time, 30 plus years and numerous visits to France, I still

am only able to use about 15 French words. I can’t believe how difficult learning this language is for me.

If you read my last two articles, you know that I adore France. I love the county, the culture, the food,

the coffee, the wine, the cheese, the people, and the language – however, I can’t understand a thing

these people say.

I had big hopes for this trip to France; I truly thought that all my hard work this last year would have

made a difference. It didn’t. At least not to the one person I really wanted to impress, my French

Father-in- Law, Jean. He and I, as you may recall, have known each other for over 30 years…yet we’ve

never had a conversation. So, during my recent visit to France, I really tried to speak slowly and

deliberately to him. Using phrases and words I felt comfortable with. But apparently even after months

and months (truth be told – years) of classes and practice, he still can’t understand a thing I say.

It was one hilarious happening after another. The latest incident and there were several memorable

moments on this trip, occurred one night at dinner as I tried to make small talk with Jean. I gathered all

my courage and said to him, “il mange beaucoup de nourriture.” I was speaking about my husband or

should I say I was trying to speak about my husband. I was trying to say he eats a lot. I just wanted to

say something simple. It wasn’t even a true statement; I just wanted to engage in conversation with

Jean. I planned the whole thing dans ma tète (in my head). I thought about how to say the sentence

dans ma tète. I said it dans ma tète. Then I said it fearlessly out loud “il mange beaucoup nourriture.”

“Quoi,” Jean quickly responded back to me. I said it again, this time a little louder, “il mange beaucoup

nourriture!” And he repeated with a smirk “Quoi.” I said it yet again, this time a little slower “il mange

beaucoup nourriture…” He then mumbled something in French to me. My husband, Ron, sat there

wide eyed. I sat there thinking what the heck did this man not understand about what I just said – I said

it slow and clear and it was a very simple sentence.

Then I heard Colette, ma belle-mere yell sternly to Jean in French from the kitchen. She was obviously

scolding him. I cringed and thought oh goodness this is not good. I tried to change the subject by saying

in French “regard le ciel,” (look at the sky) as we were on the balcony and it was a beautiful evening. My

husband looked at me oddly and said “what?” I replied with a coy look, “changer de sujet…” Half

laughing he corrected my pronunciation of the word sujet; half crying I took a GINORMOUS drink of my

wine.

When Colette, walked back into the room, she continued to reprimand Jean. At this point, I felt really

bad and just kept awkwardly saying “regard le ciel.” Jean responded to her with the typical French

“bof.” We all laughed it off and went back to our typical pattern which looks like this – 4 people are in a

room, but only 3 can talk at any one time…Ron, Colette and Jean or Ron, Colette and Suz.

Although strange, this is our norm and it works. Truthfully, we have a great relationship and get along

for long periods of time very well. We’ve traveled all over the United States and France together – it’s

just that – you know…we’ve never spoken to each other.

Long story short – Jean and I still haven’t had that conversation. We probably never will. As we said our

good-byes at the airport he smiled and hugged me tightly and said something in French – but seriously, I

have absolutely no idea what he said. But I’m sure it was said with love…then again for all I know he

was saying “thank goodness you are leaving and I can have my house back to myself.”

On the other hand, I ordered successfully in the restaurants and I communicated really well at the

market and in the stores. In addition, while visiting my husband’s cousins they seemed truly impressed

and mentioned my improvements several times. Moreover I picked up several new practical phrases to

add to my growing list of words. Most importantly, my sweet half French husband remarked numerous

times how proud he was of me for trying so hard.

I’m hoping for real language growth over the next 6 to 12 months. However currently, I’ve plateaued.

My mind is just exhausted. If anyone has any ideas on how I can improve my French, toss them my way.

Ok come on – truth be told, it’s been 30 plus years – who am I fooling. I’m probably never going to get

any better; regardless, I’m addicted to France – It’s a beautiful country! Where I am able to rest my mind

and simply be me – quiet, still, unrushed and free.

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.

Bisous, ma miche !

I met Jean, then a middle aged French man married to ma belle-mère, 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!

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.

Avez-vous un cinq (do you have a five)?

“Jack, do you want to play Go Fish?” I yelled from across the room.   “Yes, yes, yes” my 6 year old Grandson responded.  “Ok cool”. I said…”but let’s play in French”.  “Ugh GG”, he whined, “I don’t want to talk in French anymore!!!”  “O.K. cool – mais, voulez-vous de l’eau minérale?” I giggled.

What do you do when you are obsessed with something?  Oh and I mean you, not the rest of the people in your life, just you.  Well for me, a life time of dreaming about France spills over into my everyday life in little ways.  Simple things like counting in French with my Grandchildren help keep me connected to my dream. However, I hear from the peanut gallery that it can be quite annoying.

In order to explain my obsession you should know that for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to live in France and speak French.  I have absolutely no idea why.  I’ll just say that from about the age of 12, I knew I’d marry a French man.  Well, as life would play out, I married a man who is half French.  I didn’t get the whole French man package – but I did get the WHOLE French Mother-in-law package.

Long story short, my fantastique French Mother-in-law speaks English very well.  Alors, when we visit her in France or when she visits us, we just speak English.  She translates everything for us and there is really no need for us to speak French.  My husband can understand French and can speak fairly well but never had the time or desire to teach me or our children.  I’ve silently held on to my dream during 30 years of marriage.  Never wanting to rock the boat or take the time that is required to learn a language.  Experiences have been like bread crumbs along the way – experiences that have left me wanting more.  I ultimately want to spend more time in France and I don’t want to depend on others to speak for me.  I want to fully interact and engage with people in France.  Thus, I really, really need to speak French.

You should also know that in my head – I already speak French.  Not as in “je parle française”, more like dans ma tète, I think I can speak French.  And sometimes I speak this French out loud to the horror of those around me.  None more horrified than my French Mother-in-Law’s French husband Jean, who once said angrily out loud in his broken English “Juste speak English”.  Apparently he was not amused by my attempt to speak French that day.  I always tell him I have a southern French accent – he is still not amused.  He doesn’t speak English; therefore our conversations can be quite limited and humorous.  I’ve often wondered what I sound like to him.  I imagine I sound like a 4 year old child who doesn’t have a grip on the correct pronoun or tense.

We all know the cliché life gets in the way and after a life time of playing around with trying to learn French and tossing around French phrases, I’ve decided to actually learn French.  Luckily I have a personality that once I decide to do something, I overdo it.  Donc, everything I do right now is connected to learning French.  And I mean everything, T.V., movies, games, books, food, wine, classes, road signs, Facebook groups, and podcasts.  It is total self-immersion at its finest.  Apparently, this is driving everyone nuts, but after all these years I am actually starting to speak French.  Vraiment!  Je suis!

The task of learning to speak French will take years and will most likely drive my family crazy.  They will laugh and yell at me, but I won’t stop and they know I won’t stop and this will drive them more crazy.  Interesting enough is the effect it is having on my half French husband – who is having to step up his French as I’m no longer satisfied with simple answers.  I have real sentence structure questions, and I need to know maintenant – is that la musée or le musée and sometimes – not often, but on occasion – I’ve corrected him.  O.K. not really but I’ll get there.

We are blessed to have a connection with France and my children love all things French – especially the food and lingering meals.  I’m proud to say they will pick a good cheese over a piece of cake any day.  Shopping for, eating and enjoying cheese is a bond and connection our family enjoys – and a bond many of our friends don’t really get.  I love the fact that as a teenager my youngest daughter would say “I like the cheese best when I can taste it in my nose”.  And I love that today as a young woman, she will FaceTime (video chat) to show me the GOOD French cheese she found at the supermarket.

Recently, in an attempt to practice the French numbers, I again asked Jack (also known as Jacques in my head), if he wanted to play Go Fish.  He promptly and loudly said “Ok GG, but in English!”.   “Non, en française”. I replied while smiling at him.  Jack sighed and said “ugh GG – stop already”.  Then he said “but, do you have any of that French water. I like French water”.

That’s my boy!  Et maintenant, avez-vous un cinq mon petit fils?

P.S.  I just ordered Jacques (well really myself) a French Bingo (Loto) game.  It’s the little things that keep me connected.  And the other day on FaceTime (video chat) I received a thumbs up and a oh-la-la from Jean when I shared my new skills.

Pont du Gard photo Tiberio Frascari
Pont du Gard photo Tiberio Frascari.

I announced in Episode 65 of the Join Us in France Travel Podcast that I was going to write travel guides to go along with some of the podcast episodes. I’ve come to find out that it was easier said than done!

But, after spending 3 years of every spare minute producing the podcast, I decided it was time to put my fears aside and put my money where my mouth is. Last week I quit my job to dedicate myself to writing. I need to see where this effort will take me.

I am writing every day. I didn’t think that would ever happen, but here it is! At the same time surrounding myself with a team of professionals (cover designer, editors) who will assist me in creating the Addicted to France travel guides because it takes a lot of talent to make great books.

As I took my daily walk with the dogs this morning I was thinking about this: how do I strike the right tone? How do I inject my French voice into a field full of Anglo writers? How do I deliver superior value to my readers and make this successful commercially? I don’t have all the answers yet, but here are some of the guiding principles I will follow:

  • I will tell it like it is. I am not beholden to anybody and will keep it that way.
  • I will make the reader chuckle when possible. French people are an odd bunch, why not have fun with it?
  • I will make it easy for readers to grab their Kindle or Smart Phone and have actionable travel information at their fingertip.
  • I will share the joy of travel while helping to smooth out the small irritants that may come along uninvited.
  • I will not try to be someone I’m not. I am a regular French person who doesn’t know everything be loves to explore.

This is an exciting new beginning for me, I hope the folks who have become fans of the show will come along for the ride and cheer me on as they have with the podcast. On to bigger and better things, woman!

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