Six weeks into our year and I no longer have to think so much about speaking French. I remember that at about this point in my year in Tours as a student, my lazy American jaw finally started to form the words and make the sounds more easily and I didn’t have to work quite as hard. It’s always been frustrating on previous trips: just when I was getting warmed up to speaking French all the time with the words flowing more easily, our vacation was over and it was time to leave. When we arrived in France this time, I tripped over even the simplest phrases and imagined myself the Tin Woodsman, needing Dorothy to give me some emergency oil to loosen my jaw – on both sides, s’il vous plaît! Speaking French requires so much more in-and-out movement of the lips – exaggerated at times – to pronounce words correctly and achieve the appropriate intonation. Joe and I often try to determine whether someone is speaking French from across the room, just by watching how his or her mouth moves.
Much to the consternation of L’Académie Française, the elite group of 40 immortels [immortals(!) – who take their language seriously] in charge of ensuring the “purity” of the French language, there is increasingly more Franglais used in everyday speech, especially in Paris. A wireless connection is wifi (pronounced wee-fee), a runner goes “jogging,” those who want a calorie-free soda order a “Coca-Light” and everyone says “bon week end” on Friday afternoon. Next to the signs for the boulangerie, patissserie, boucherie and cremerie, you now find signs for the sandwicherie. The small shops that sell bread, pastries, meat and dairy now sit next to a store that specializes in sandwiches. I’m keenly aware of my American-ness when I’m in France and do my best to avoid the more blatant Franglais when I can. Several days into our stay in Paris, we decided we needed a lens cap attachment for our new camera so we could just let the cover dangle between snapping pictures. Before heading into the little camera shop a couple doors down from our apartment, I Google-translated the appropriate photography-related vocabulary and figured out just how to describe what we needed. As I’ve so often found, the phrase le petit truc (the little whatchamacallit) came in very handy that day. “Mais oui, Madame, zee cap-key-per,” the guy behind the counter replied to my query, accent on the first syllable of the last word. I’d agonized all morning over exactly how to communicate what I needed and he made all my worry unnecessary with his instant Franglais response. Now that we’re out in the sticks, it’s been so much easier to understand what people say. Parisians tend to run everything together, dropping endings and forming their words deep in the backs of their mouths. And of course, the terribly chic and cool young people in Paris speak an undecipherable slang – even more it seems than my friends and I did and young people do everywhere. Except for a wooden plank nailed to a tree whose painted letters announced “Snack Bar” as we canoed down the Dordogne, French is so much more pure outside Paris.
I’ll need to be ready to continue working my jaw when we cross the border into Spain in a couple weeks. Despite having taken seven years of Spanish before and concurrently with French, I haven’t had the opportunity to practice it since I visited my sister Peggy for a couple days when I lived in France and she was on a college trip to Madrid. I suspect that most of what I’ll be doing en español is translating road signs and menus but I’m hoping that at least some of what I learned in all my years in Spanish class will come back to me. Joe recently admitted that he “gave up” on French, even though he took it for three years in high school, as soon as he was told that nouns could be either masculine or feminine. As a rational fourteen year-old, he concluded that it was just stupid and it’s clear from conversations on this trip that he still harbors resentment. I’ve done my best to explain the whole gender thing and how it goes back at least as far as Latin but it still makes no sense to him. No matter how compelling the explanation, he still comes back to the basic question of why? Why make a language even harder than it has to be? I’ll be sure to ask L’Académie Française the next time I correspond with them but I’m afraid some questions simply have no answers. In the meantime, I’ll just keep my jaw loose and my oil can ready.