Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jumping to Conclusions

I have been speaking French for nearly 10 years now. While my spelling and grammatical skills could still use some work, I have always been proud of my accent. As it turns out, sounding more French than you are can really get you in to trouble.

The problem is, French sounding words come out of my mouth but they sometimes come out in the wrong order or in the incorrect tense. Or at times the words come out correctly but my questions are so silly and basic that the person I am speaking to isn't sure how to respond. For example, the first time I went to the doctor's office here in Paris I had to ask them how to open the door? Or when I went to the pharmacist and asked if she could show me how large a 6cm band-aid is? In these situations, the person I am talking to, looks me up and down, and thinks hmmm...this lady looks sort of French and sounds fairly French (or given her accent she has at least lived here for a while) why is she asking me such a stupid question? And why didn't she use the correct form of the verb to be? In earlier days people would assume that I was a tourist. Their expressions would soften, their speech would slow and they would kindly respond to my question. Unfortunately, nowadays most people conclude that I am an idiot. Or a racist as the case may be.

I first realized this phenomenon when I was buying bread one morning. I walk in to the bakery, greet the sales woman and ask for a baguette. I greet people all the time and have successfully ordered more than a hundred baguettes in my day so these sentences flow easily and accurately from my lips. She replies, "Trad ou Gana?". My brow furrows as I search my list of vocabulary words looking for trad or gana...nothing...I obviously look lost so the saleswoman repeats her question to me, "Trad?! ou Gana!?". The man behind me in line sighs with impatience and the saleswoman glares at me wondering what my problem is. Apparently she decides that I must be an idiot because she pauses and smiles in a pityful and slightly condesending way then in slow motion points to the two baskets of bread and says, "ça ou ça? this or this?". I quickly realize by Trad she means a Baguette de Tradition and by Gana she means a Flute de Gana. Some bakeries buy the rights or special ingredients which permit them to sell a certain kind of bread. There are a handful of these bread brands which I am now familiar with but at the time I only knew of the Tradition which I had never heard being referred to as a Trad. Native French people are familiar with this kind of bakery lingo, tourists rarely pick up on it, and I land somewhere in between. Not familiar enough to understand her abbreviated terminology, but too familiar to get the nice explanation reserved for visitors.

This same issue comes up at work. This week a man named Saïd Rachidi (a name not of French origins but a common North African name that most French people would be familiar with) called in to our offices. I pick up the phone and from my brief greeting he is unable to detect that I am not French. So when I ask him to repeat his name five times and then finally ask him to spell it out for me he is offended and assumes I am ridiculing him because of his non-French name. Little does he know that I make 90% of people who call in at work repeat their names five times then have them spell it. This man leaves our interaction concluding that I am a racist and not a foreigner who honestly could not understand his name.

When I lived in the States and would come to France for vacation or for work, I wanted to appear as French as possible. I used my very best accent, used French hand gestures and put on my most Euro-fabulous clothing. These days I usually to identify myself as non-French right away, especially in situations where I don't know exactly what I am doing or how to explain what I need. Generally speaking the motivation for doing this is practical. However recently I have been feeling simultaneously motivated by feelings of patriotism. These recent feelings of patriotism are still under review and will surely be analyzed further in a future post. All I know is that ever since I moved here I no longer feel the need to minimize my American-ness, it just gets me in to trouble anyway.

1 comment:

P.Shaw said...

Well Mary, at least you have not told a restaurant owner that his gay boys were the best you have ever had (and yes, his staff was predominantly gay) when you really meant to congratulate him on the quality of his seafood.